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MOVIE REVIEW

Life and three Rs taught in one room

October 24, 2003|Manohla Dargis | Times Staff Writer

Movie lovers weary of the blood and violence currently washing over our screens will find sweet relief in Nicolas Philibert's documentary "To Be and to Have." For his portrait of a small schoolhouse in rural France, the filmmaker has made an up-close and genuinely personal acquaintance with some dozen children and the infinitely patient teacher charged with ushering them into the larger world. The result is an unhurried model of nonfiction filmmaking and a vision of life at its most persuasively humanistic.

To urban American eyes, the school in the film -- essentially a one-room classroom shared by children ages 3 to 11 -- seems like a charming relic out of a Laura Ingalls Wilder book, a romantic throwback to simpler times. Located in Saint-Etienne-sur-Usson, a farming village of about 200 located about six hours south of Paris, the school is housed in a handsome two-story villa divided between a lower floor for the classroom and an upstairs apartment for the school's longtime teacher, Georges Lopez. Each school day, a white van motors through the area gathering the area children from farmers and laborers to deliver them into Lopez's ministrations.

A sober figure with a salt-and-pepper goatee and his country's fondness for black turtlenecks, Lopez looks more like a college professor than the kind of man who has spent more than two decades wiping runny noses and untangling the pluperfect. Part of what makes a great documentary great is the subject, and though the film never scrapes below the surface of the schoolteacher -- we never find out if he lives alone or has children of his own -- Lopez pulls as hard on the imagination as a fictional character. Philibert sits down with Lopez only once for an abbreviated on-camera interview, and then primarily to explore the teacher's past. But in his unobtrusive, observational style, the filmmaker creates a vivid snapshot of a man whose dedication and asceticism border on the ecclesiastical.

"To Be and to Have" is more than a profile of a dedicated professional, however; it is an intensely sympathetic look at the everyday lives of children. (The film's original title "Etre et Avoir," incidentally, unites the French language's two auxiliary or helping verbs, which has a nice metaphoric resonance since Lopez performs a similar function for his students.) Through scenes fluidly stretched across several seasons, the film returns us into a Lilliputian realm of coloring books, penmanship, grammar, simple sums, petty squabbles, allegiances, hot tears and cascading giggles. Although there are usually about a dozen kids in the room at any one time, Philibert has his favorites, like a delicate doll named Marie and the class clown, Jojo, a tiny exclamation point of a boy whose restless joy fills the room.

Lopez clearly favors Jojo as well, but he doesn't indulge the boy more than any of the other students. Indeed, one of the most fascinating and instructive moments in the film occurs when Jojo repeatedly answers his teacher without an accompanying honorific. "What?" asks Lopez once, twice, three, four times, before finally getting the required "yes, sir." Philibert overindulges in nostalgia -- the school's computers remain carefully out of sight -- but neither does he obscure the fact that even in this quaint little room children are being smoothed of their idiosyncrasies and readied for a lifetime of obedience, conformity and work. It may be a simple coincidence of geography, but it seems somehow notable that Philibert opens his documentary with a shot of steers looking straight at the camera.

Given the generally pacific mien of the teacher it's also worth mentioning that Lopez -- apparently miffed about not sharing more directly in the documentary's unexpected international success and revenues -- recently filed a suit against Philibert. According to the trade newspaper Variety, the schoolteacher "argues that the film, which is a copy of his work in the classroom, is his intellectual property and that he was not paid for its use." Apparently, the French are not so very different, after all.

*

'To Be and to Have'

*

MPAA rating: Unrated

Times guidelines: Completely gentle

*

Produced by Maia Films, Arte France Cinema, Les Films d'Ici, Centre National de Documentation Pedagogique, with the participation of Canal+, the Centre National de la Cinematographie, Gimages 4, and the backing of the Ministere de l'Education Nationale, the Conseil Regional d'Auvergne, the Procirep, released by New Yorker Films. Director Nicolas Philibert. Photography Katell Dijian, Laurent Didier. Sound Julien Cloquet. In French with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes.

Exclusively at Landmark's Westside Pavilion Cinemas, Westside Pavilion, 10800 W. Pico Blvd., West L.A. (310) 475-0202.

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