"To Be and to Have"

This heart-wrenching documentary about a French village schoolteacher at work offers the comedy and pathos of great drama and the visual magnificence of painting.

Published September 26, 2003 8:00PM (EDT)

The wonderful French documentary "To Be and to Have" would fit beautifully on a double bill with François Truffaut's "The Wild Child." They are both films about the teacher as artist, and about teaching as a form of love. This film chronicling a year in the life of a one-room schoolhouse in rural France sees teaching as an expression of abiding faith in what we think of as the basic values of civilization: reason, tolerance, learning, cooperation and comradeship.

The teacher, Georges Lopez, looks to be in his early 50s. His 13 pupils range in age from around 3 years old to 11 or 12. Lopez ("Monsieur" to his pupils) runs what, in the '60s and early '70s, was known as "an open classroom." While he's with one age group, the other kids are working on lessons or projects. But his method of teaching is alive to what you might call the wonder of the basics. Lopez knows what a big deal it is for the young ones to learn how to form their letters or their numbers, to learn that there are bigger numbers than 1,000, to discover how to form sentences. And he understands the same for the older kids who are taking dictation from him or learning to add columns of numbers.

Method actors talk about using sense memory to play a scene. At times the sense memories that flood you while watching "To Be and to Have" are overwhelming. I have generally bad memories of elementary school (I didn't really start enjoying school until junior high). But this movie brought back what it was like, for the first time in your life, to be fitted into a social structure, the sudden realization that you can't just talk to your friends as you've always been free to, the sense of shame that comes over you when you know you've misbehaved, and even small things, like the way you curled your arm protectively around a drawing you were working on.

Nicolas Philibert is a rare filmmaker who might have taken his credo from E.M. Forster's admonition: "Only connect." He isn't interested in using this rural schoolroom (which, by the way, is bright and cheerful and modern) as a symbol of quaintness or as a hymn to simpler values. He starts from the assumption that there are feelings and memories common to the process of learning and those are what he wants to evoke. It's a moving contradiction that much of what we see here may, in our minds, be associated with an earlier era, and yet these are the very things that educational progressives tout.

Philibert takes his camera into the homes of several students. It seems that, in this town, parents sitting down after the evening meal to help their children with homework is a ritual. There's a marvelous sequence where one of the older boys struggles with multiplication and the addition of rows of figures. It starts out with his mother helping him, but before long his uncle, a huge, hairy guy in a sleeveless T-shirt, has ambled over to check his nephew's sums. Then the boy's father gets involved. Even his little brother, peering over his shoulder, seems fascinated. The boy seems very fortunate.

But all the kids do, because Lopez is the luck they share. Bearded and bespectacled and possessed of a soft-spoken authority, Lopez pulls off the difficult task of realizing that his students are just children but according them the dignity of treating them as if they were adults. The subtext of his gently persistent questioning during lessons is "You're smart enough to figure this out." He doesn't coddle them, and he's there to help, but his whole manner is designed to make his students believe in their own abilities. He sticks to the lesson plans, and he has a way of keeping one of his students, an easily distracted little charmer named Jojo, firmly on track. Lopez, though, is flexible enough to take the time to make Jojo understand that numbers can stretch on into infinity, or to respond to one little girl's impromptu remark that she wants to be a teacher and ask them what they all want to be when they grow up.

A sequence where Lopez has to discipline two older boys who keep fighting each other is the polar opposite of the miserable way the kids are disciplined in Frederick Wiseman's landmark 1968 documentary "High School." There you felt the students were being conditioned to be cogs in an unyielding social structure. Lopez doesn't lose his temper. His patience and reason, his reminder that these boys must set an example for the younger students, his implicit message that harmony and support are the keystones of learning, brings them to a realization of how disruptive their behavior is without a shred of fuss or a raised voice. By the time the two find they are moving on to the same middle school and vow to look out for each other, you share in his triumph.

Lopez's one-on-one scenes with some of the kids are a series of revelations. With one painfully shy girl moving on to middle school in the next year, he sets it up so she'll come visit him on Saturdays to tell him what she's learned and how things are going. It's his way of easing her into the social interactions that he knows she finds mystifying and frightening. And when he talks to another boy (one of those he had to discipline), whose father is being treated for cancer, he deals with the boy's tears not with false promises that everything will be all right, but with clear questions, and by telling him that sickness is a fact of life. The message he imparts to his student is that though the boy may not know it, he's strong enough to get through this. Lopez finds a way to comfort this boy without indulging either his student's sadness or his fears. At times like this, "To Be and to Have" is a masterpiece of empathy.

I wish we found out more about Lopez himself, whether he's married or has kids, what he intends to do when he retires after his 20 years of teaching in the village come to an end. (The cinema-vérité style used here means we don't learn his full name, or the name of the village -- St. Etienne-sur-Usson -- until the end credits.) But those are mere details in a movie that is really his unconscious self-portrait.

If "To Be and to Have" sounds like the type of thing you might have drag yourself to out of a sense of duty, you should know that it's not only one of the most pleasurable movies around, but that it also has the radiant simplicity and well-deep emotions we associate with the great humanist filmmakers. This has been an extraordinary year for documentaries and the best of them -- "Spellbound," "Winged Migration" and this picture -- are so simply made that we can fool ourselves into thinking they aren't crafted at all. But the pleasure of "To Be and to Have" is also aesthetic. Eschewing grainy photography and jerky hand-held cameras, Philibert and his team of camera operators use steady, carefully (but not fussily) composed shots. The effect is of a highly observant person intently focused on what he's seeing, watching expectantly to see what will be revealed. Perhaps that's why the kids are so individualized (apart from Jojo, I especially liked a Franco-Asian toddler named Marie, a preternaturally confident, almost bossy little thing; a scene where the two of them try to work the school's photocopier is the movie's comic high point). Nothing distracts us from the flow of lessons or life. And there are moments of visual poetry. The opening shot of cows being herded in a snowstorm might be taken from a Thomas Hardy novel. An image of a dog waiting patiently at the schoolhouse door for the children to be dismissed could come from Dickens or Flaubert. And the final shot, of huge rolls of hay sitting in the summer sun, suggests a painting by Millet.

"To Be and to Have" ends with Lopez saying goodbye to his class on the last day of school. They all gather round him to kiss him, European-style, on both cheeks (the sort of simple and loving human contact no longer permitted American teachers). He stands in the doorway for a few minutes, overcome and bereft. You share his sudden sense of loss, and you know that what his students have gained from him is enormous.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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