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Indie Flicks

Published March 10, 2005

Taming the savage breast

Les Choristes (PG-13) (95 min.) - The French have long embraced movies about delinquent boys (Truffaut's The 400 Blows, for example), so perhaps that explains the success of Les Choristes ("The Chorus"), No. 1 at the box office in France in 2004. American moviegoers may not take to its simplicity, but fans of choral singing will enjoy the music.

Set in a boarding school for difficult boys in post-World War II France, it tells of a newly arrived teacher named Mathieu (Gerard Jugnot), who turns to music to reach his charges, seething with fear and rage under the rule of a sadistic headmaster, Rachin (Francois Berleand). Naturally, Mathieu has them singing like angels in a remarkably short time, led by a beautiful boy soprano, Morhange (Jean-Baptiste Maunier).

Jugnot, balding, a bit dumpy, gives an appealingly modest performance as the miracle teacher, composing the music for his choir and diffidently pursuing a thwarted romance with Morhange's single mother (Marie Bunel). The story unfolds in flashback, beginning with the grownup Morhange (Jacques Perrin), now a distinguished conductor returning to France for his mother's funeral. One of his old schoolmates turns up on a rainy night with Mathieu's diary, and the memories come flooding back.

Director Christophe Barratier, who co-wrote the screenplay, populates the school with stock characters: a crotchety maintenance man, cynical teachers and a cross-section of truants: from red-haired bully to withdrawn waif to bespectacled charmer. Little moral fables are sprinkled along the way to the inevitable bittersweet finale.

Most of the score was composed and arranged by Bruno Coulais, and the boys give an affecting performance. The highlight is their joyous account of La Nuit from the Rameau opera Hippolyte et Aricie.

Le Fond de l'Etang is a shabby place, more like a jail than a school, but the surrounding French countryside is utterly bucolic. B-

- JOHN FLEMING, Times performing arts critic

A little preachy

Conspiracy of Silence (Not rated, probably R) (86 min.) - Writer-director John Deery's film debut broaches the subject of celibacy among Catholic priests, specifically declaring the practice outdated and practically impossible in modern times. By focusing on homosexuality rather than child abuse as a sexual outlet, the movie isn't ripped from the headlines as much as constructed with made-for-TV mechanics. Frank talk, irreverence and nudity aside, this isn't a particularly brave movie.

The film begins with Father Sweeney (Patrick Casey) disrupting a Vatican assembly by holding up a sign declaring "The Church Has AIDS." Three years later, he has left the priesthood and commits suicide. Meanwhile, an Irish seminary student named Daniel McLaughlin (Jonathan Forbes) is expelled after he is seen leaving the room of another student known for being gay. Daniel is straight; nothing sexual happened. But appearances are enough for the rector (Sean McGinley) to go into the mode of extreme damage control.

How extreme? Eventually Daniel's family is denied a financial grant through church pressure, and the family of a dogged newspaper reporter (Jason Barry) - every conspiracy flick needs one to keep information coming - is threatened. There's much discussion of right, wrong and whether either matters when the Catholic Church makes decisions. Adding a couple of priests sympathetic to Daniel's situation makes Deery's leanings clear, at the expense of whatever even-handed debate might have emerged.

To spice things up, Deery proves Daniel's heterosexuality with a needless nude tryst with his former girlfriend (Catherine Cusack) and a final confrontation on live television, where the rector's hypocrisy becomes his undoing. Conspiracy of Silence is the kind of movie that never puts that comeuppance in doubt. Bunching everyone together on the line between good and bad would be more compelling, but Deery won't risk viewers' misunderstanding his contempt for celibate policy. He may have a point, but his zealousness to portray Catholic authority as an archvillain blunts it. C

- STEVE PERSALL, Times film critic

[Last modified March 9, 2005, 09:40:04]

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