Movie Review: To Be and to Have
By Michael Wilmington, Tribune Movie Critic
The seasons turn, the earth changes, and a group of 13 children watch and learn with awakening wonder in "To Be and To Have," a deceptively simple French film about teaching that keeps enlarging as you watch it, becoming beautiful and inspiring in a way most films never touch.
The central figure of director Nicolas Philibert's film is Georges Lopez, a 55-year-old French elementary-school teacher who for the past 20 years has taught kindergarteners to sixth-graders in a one-room schoolhouse in Saint-Etienne-sur-Usson, a tiny village in the wine-making region of Aubergne that is sparsely populated by farmers, artisans and commuters.
Trim, bespectacled and soft-spoken, Lopez is hardly the sort of guy you'd imagine as a movie hero. At first, he seems too modest and ordinary to fully seduce our attention or the camera's. Yet a hero is just what he becomes in "To Be and To Have," the most popular French documentary in that country's cinema history.
During the film's two hours, which show the span of one school year, we watch Lopez guide and interact with these children. Calmly and surely, he helps them learn to read, draw, work with numbers and discover the world around them through books, computers and the verdant pageant outside the school's huge windows. He mediates a fight between the two oldest, toughest boys: truculent farm kid Julien and fatherless Olivier. He soothes painfully shy Nathalie, tries to get a confused 5-year-old to count past six and another to finish a drawing. He unlocks the secrets of photocopiers and crayons for them all. He takes them on a walk through the trees, helps as they squeal and plunge down a snowy toboggan track.
At the end of the film, the school year up and his career near its end, he says goodbye to all of them and watches them leave, his face ever so subtly marked with a sense of loss and forbearance. The shot of Lopez in the doorway as his children leave is one of the most moving in any recent film - precisely because it's so unforced, because we know what he's feeling and also, by then, what we think and feel about him.
Lopez is the kind of teacher we all remember and treasure, the one who listened and helped open up life for us. A poor child himself, son of a Spanish immigrant, he developed a love of school early on. He tells us that he will continue to tutor when he retires - and when, quite possibly, this little one-room school closes forever. Many such schools in France recently have; "To Be" is an elegy for them all.
Philibert, who made the equally masterful and poignant 1992 film "In the Land of the Deaf," is a brilliant documentarian in the cinema verite school of Jean Rouch, Frederick Wiseman and Sweden's great Stefan Jarl. His subjects, which he shows with sharp perception or transcendent compassion, have included ace mountain climbers, powerful business executives, acting students and, as here, common people.
Revealing things lofty or small, he never seems to intrude on his subject. Philibert and his cameramen work without lights, quietly and closely, until, one imagines, everyone in the room forgets their presence. They shoot exhaustively (60 hours of footage were cut down expertly for "To Be") and so they catch the little moments we rarely see in films: turtles crossing the floor, a flash of boyish anger, the way one child grasps a crayon, the teacher's eyes as he watches his pupils depart. From that subtle mosaic of life, Philibert, like Lopez, helps us see that nothing can be more important than the way a child is taught, no one more crucial than the teacher who teaches well.
"To Be and to Have"
Directed and edited by Nicolas Philibert; photographed by Philibert, Katell Djian, Laurent Didier, Hugues Gemignani; music, Philippe Hersant; sound (Dolby SR) Julien Cloquet; produced by Gilles Sandoz; associate producer Serge Lalou. With Georges Lopez, and his students: Alize, Axel, Guillaume, Jessie, Jojo, Johann, Jonathan, Julien, Laura, Letitia, Marie-Elisabeth, Nathalie, Olivier. In French, with English subtitles. At The Music Box Theatre. A New Yorker Films release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:54. No MPAA rating: family.