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To Be and To Have

Posted by martinteller on May 22, 2013

Nicolas Philibert takes his camera inside a one-room schoolhouse in a rural French village for a year.  The teacher, Georges Lopez, is a soft-spoken man (and starting to think about retirement) in charge of about a dozen primary school children, ranging from roughly 5 to 12 in age.  In this setting, he’s able to give the kids some individual attention, and the class is so close-knit that the older children often look after the younger ones.

That’s about all there is to say regarding the content of the film.  It’s a very gentle and quiet film, filmed in the fly-on-the-wall direct cinema style of Allan King or Frederick Wiseman.  We see Lopez teaching the children, some of whom are brighter than others and need a little more direction.  We see field trips to the middle school library and a picnic (where, in the film’s only moment of “tension”, one of the smaller children gets momentarily lost in the tall grasses).  We see a couple of one-on-one discussions where Lopez is either talking one of his charges through a tough time or stimulating them to learn (one little boy begins to grasp the concept of infinity).  There are also frequent cutaways to the lovely French countryside, including the opening where a herd of very metaphorical cows are being gathered and guided.

It’s a charming and lovely movie, and elegant in its simplicity.  Because the class size is so small, most of the children emerge as distinct characters.  Just observing the process of learning has a calming and warming effect on the viewer.  The kids are adorable and for the most part well-behaved, respectful of their little community.  It’s also interesting to watch Lopez at work.  He’s patient and he’s also firm without being tyrannical.  And he’s not perfect.  In one of the most moving scenes, he tries to talk to Nathalie, who is moving up to the middle school in another town.  She’s shy and withdrawn, and Lopez tries to get her to open up about her feelings.  Although he is perfectly kind to her, there’s a sense that he’s not connecting with her… for whatever reason (and it could be the presence of the camera), Nathalie is slightly beyond his reach.

The film isn’t perfect, either.  In the middle, Lopez talks to the camera about his upbringing and how he got to be a teacher.  We hear someone (presumably Philibert) asking questions.  This break with the observational style is jarring, and adds little of value.  Except for this one scene, the camera only records, submerging us fully in this world.  I would have preferred not to have that disturbed.

But overall, it’s a movie full of smiles and some tears and the wonder of growth.  Lopez is not a remarkable man, except in the sense that all teachers are remarkable.  His students are not remarkable pupils, except in the sense that the process of learning itself is remarkable.  The affection you develop for these people is remarkable.  Rating: Very Good (81)


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