Teacher focuses on civility and respect

December 12, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Set amid the unspoiled, often snow-swept farm and cattle land of France's Auvergne region, Nicolas Philibert's To Be and to Have, a documentary about a "single class school" (what Americans loosely call a one-room schoolhouse), is the best movie about teaching since Conrack (1973). It's also a lucid, moving account of 13 children growing up with each other's help and their teacher's guidance in the course of a normal school year.

The hero, Georges Lopez, has instructed students from ages 3 to 11 in his school for two decades; now he's 18 months away from retirement. Lopez's practical intelligence and patient empathy act on quick and slow learners like a tonic. As a typical day goes on, he moves smoothly if not effortlessly among three groups (kindergartners, first-graders and older kids), encouraging them to support everyone in their age block and then the student body as a whole.

He emits a hum of mental and emotional engagement - and before a single term is up each pupil locks onto his frequency. That's because he addresses them, individually and in groups, with a sweet reasonableness that's irrefutable and catching. He teaches how to cook an omelet and how to construct a sentence with the same dry amusement and tenacity. He breaks down small-fry penmanship and rowdy playground behavior with identical concern and analytic calm.

Americans obsess about instilling kids with self-respect. Focusing on group civility and respect for others, Lopez gets better results - his pupils wind up acknowledging not only their individual differences but also their shared feelings and abilities. He gives a couple of boys bound for middle school a talking-to about fighting. Yet near the end, he urges them to band together and beat off bullies as a team when they enter their new academy. Because he's made them confront their mutual competitiveness as well as their differing personalities, it's not just wishful thinking on his part.

To Be and to Have (at the Charles Theatre) contains a view of childhood as complex and textured, funny and bittersweet as Francois Truffaut's fiction film Small Change (1976). Truffaut celebrated childhood as a magic time. Philibert depicts the wonder of children maturing under a teacher's influence and developing the resources to engage with their broadening world. When a tiny scamp and his girl pal fiddle with a copying machine (in a bit of deadpan comedy, we later see a repairman trying to fix it), they aren't just acting up - they're attempting to use their burgeoning powers of understanding to lick the problems posed by this alien device.

Little miracles spring up throughout this picture. Philibert captures several one-on-one conversations - especially between Lopez and a boy whose father has cancer, and between Lopez and an achingly shy and withdrawn girl - that are equally devastating and inspiring in the teacher's step-by-step extraction of soul-baring honesty. But just as potent and infinitely more upbeat is the vignette of Lopez taking advantage of some down time on a class trip to inject the idea of infinity into a restless youngster's mind. When To Be and to Have comes to its close, you can't believe Lopez will retire. Teaching isn't his profession. It's his calling.

To Be and to Have

Documentary

Directed by Nicolas Philibert

Released by New Yorker Films

Time 104 minutes

Unrated (in French with English subtitles)

Sun score ****

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