- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 20, 2003

“To Be and to Have” distills the events of a winter and spring in the classroom of George Lopez, a small-town elementary school teacher supervising the education of 13 students. The justifiably acclaimed French documentary begins an exclusive engagement today at Visions Cinema.

An observant and sympathetic guest, filmmaker Nicolas Philibert proves admirably sensitive both to the atmospheric immediacy of settings, indoors and outdoors, and then to the nuances of Mr. Lopez’s patient and kind but always purposeful approach to teaching.

A poetic feel for landscape and climate is evident from the outset, which establishes a dairy-farming region of the Auvergne with wonderfully evocative images of snow flurries swirling around a cow herd. Just as poetically expressive on camera are Mr. Lopez’s instructional techniques — from the observations of little ones copying the teacher’s example of “maman” or the numeral 7 to an interlude of hand-washing for Jojo, the most conspicuous of the little ones.

As diffident but effective as the teacher himself, Mr. Philibert arranges a brief return to elementary school that allows us to feel the double gratification of knowing most of the answers and remaining friendly interlopers. There’s an elegiac element that enhances the fondness: the estimable Mr. Lopez appears to be a year or so away from retirement.

The son of an immigrant Spanish farm laborer who married a Frenchwoman, Mr. Lopez recalls in an off-hours exchange with the filmmaker that teaching appealed to him so much from the beginning that he began practicing it in boyhood on cousins who couldn’t attend school regularly.

Mr. Lopez has spent 20 years as the teacher in this particular community, identified in the end credits as Saint-Etienne sur Usson. Evidently, the French education ministry is willing to preserve the tradition of the “one-room” rural schoolhouse to some extent.

Some students are, of course, more camera-shy or camera-seductive than others. However, one never feels that a situation that requires some confidence between teacher and pupil has been subverted or distorted by Mr. Philibert’s presence. If anything, he seems to intensify the innate tendencies of introverted or extroverted children. The movie touches base with a number of families, particularly to observe that homework is taken seriously.

There are some very smart cookies in the classroom. One little person is onto the way things work at a very tender age, explaining, “We don’t give the orders, he gives the orders. We’ll order our children around.” Mr. Lopez replies, “Exactly.”

The mother-hen tendencies that Mr. Lopez seems to have subdued well in most situations begin surfacing toward the end, when he’s giving advice and pep talks to students who will be entering middle school in the next term. He goes out of his way to remind the shyest that he’ll be available on Saturdays, just in case something needs to be confided to the old teacher.

Mr. Philibert lyricizes a somewhat similar impulse during a hiking and picnicking excursion when one of the smaller children appears to have been lost. Mr. Lopez and some older children call for her while wading through a field of grain that has grown tall enough to become an open hiding place. As they echo her name, “Alize,” you suddenly realize that the term “catchers in the rye” has been given a beautiful new significance by the camera of Nicolas Philibert.


TITLE: “To Be and to Have”

RATING: No MPAA Rating (adult subject matter)

CREDITS: Directed by Nicholas Philibert. Sound recording by Julien Cloquet. Music by Philippe Hersant. In French with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes


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