To Be and To Have

October, 2003, Documentary

Directed by:Nicolas Philibert

Starring:Georges Lopez

To Be And To Have

Its rather ponderous title to the contrary notwithstanding, this marvelous examination of a one-room school set amidst the dairy farms of Auvergne, France is the best movie to come out in the last few months and the third documentary this year, (along with Winged Migration and Spellbound) to make my list of top documentaries for 2003. Filmmaker Nicolas Philibert wanted to record the passing of his country's old-fashioned rural grade schools and he reportedly searched carefully for an appropriate example, finding it in Georges Lopez, a teacher of 3+decades in the final year of his career. 

Like Fred Wiseman, America's legendary documentarian of contemporary social institutions, Philibert blends bucolic shots of Gallic countryside and decidedly unglamorous scenes of farm life with the quiet, carefully managed environment of Lopez's multi-purpose classroom, in which he instructs a dozen students, ages 3 to 11. Using his calm voice and gently incessant Socratically-inspired questioning, Lopez enchants these youngsters' minds as he captures their hearts. In less than two hours, the audience follows an entire school year which will find three of the students "graduating" to middle schools in the region, and Lopez into a retirement not entirely free of bittersweet memories. And the children…

There's Jojo, a handful of years old, sweet and mischievous as a puppy and just as eager to learn; Natalie, so quiet and withdrawn that she's begun to frighten her mother. Then comes Julien, oafish at 11, who finds handling a tractor much less treacherous than learning his multiplication tables at his family’s dinner table and Olivier, on the brink of middle school, dealing with his father's devastating fight with throat cancer. To each of these emerging personalities, this gentle, introspective teacher brings the outside world, with its wonders and threats; never raising his voice, using his softly cadenced questions to draw out the potential of each individual personality.  Lopez works like a painter, producing a living tableau out of the materials that so boisterously enter his classroom each day.

Philibert vividly captures the molding of young minds without striking a single false note, reminding his audience in the process how important and beautiful his vocation can be. How fortunate these students are--and how privileged the audience lucky enough to experience even a small portion of their education.

The verdict?  Absolutely not to be missed. 

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