Learning from the French

Georges Lopez works with one of his students in Nicolas Philbert's profile of the teacher. (courtesy photo)

A lesson in the daily labors of a 55-year-old saint in a one-class schoolroom

"I don't think I could have done any other job," Georges Lopez tells the camera during a rare moment in which he directs attention to himself and not his pupils. Lopez is the only teacher in Saint-Etienne-sur-Usson, in the French Auvergne. With 13 charges ranging in age from 3-and-a-half to 11, the impossible, but essential job requires that he spend his days balancing interests, abilities, and needs.

Out of 500 single-class schools left in France, director Nicolas Philibert, whose earlier work included profiles of champions in cycling and mountaineering, chose to spend 10 weeks with Lopez and his children. To Be and To Have displays the daily labors of a 55-year-old saint, the immigrant farmworker's son who lives in and for a rural school.

Although it explores the art of teaching, To Be and To Have, whose title combines the two most important and irregular verbs in French while echoing Hamlet's existential soliloquy, is not overtly didactic. Devoid of explanatory voiceovers, the film is a candid record of elementary education within a single room in central France. At separate paces, the children learn to read, count, write, draw, cook, and cooperate. The pace at times seems glacial, demanding that the viewer share the patience of both the teacher and the documentarian. At other times, restive younger and older boys and girls seem bound to invoke anarchy. The children are adorable, but there are moments when one marvels at how an adult could endure their exactions hour after hour, day after day, year after year. Before Lopez arrived at Saint-Etienne-sur-Usson in 1981, the school had been closed for seven years. During the 2000-2001 academic year, when Philibert and his small crew became a mute presence within his classroom, Lopez tells his pupils that he intends to retire in a year-and-a-half. They wonder, distressed, what he and they will do after that.

To Be and To Have
(Etre et avoir)

Dir. Nicolas Philibert; feat. Georges Lopez, Alizé, Axel, Guillaume, Jessie, Jojo, Johann, Jonathan, Julien, Laura, Létitia, Marie-Elisabeth, Nathalie, Olivier (NR)

What Lopez does about conflicts among his pupils is indicative of his refusal to patronize or bully little persons. When two of the older boys, Olivier and Julien, tussle in the yard, Lopez is a tranquil voice of reason and decency. "Let's talk about it calmly," he tells the combatants. "Is there any point in it?" With excruciating self-control, he eventually gets each to admit that their fighting accomplished nothing and that they really should be friends. By contrast, we see that when his mother slaps him for errors in his homework, Julien's facility at arithmetic does not improve.

Of course, not every human problem is amenable to resolution through sweet reason. Lopez spends much screen time trying to draw conversation out of unnaturally reticent Nathalie. But the girl's thoughts remain locked within a troubled mind, and one worries about her trajectory after leaving Lopez' classroom. When Olivier, weeping, tells the teacher about his father's laryngectomy, all that Lopez can offer is a sympathetic ear and the thought that: "Sickness is part of life." Such genuine compassion ought to be as well.

Even when, as in Stand and Deliver, the teacher is a hero, American movies tend to depict schools as blackboard jungles, scarred by graffiti and marred by violent contempt for education. Alluding only briefly to what Marx called the idiocy of rural life, Philibert romanticizes the classroom that he films, cutting to external shots to suggest that life within the little school parallels the changing seasons outside. It helps that his subjects are pre-pubescent, unformed youngsters more vulnerable than menacing and that the teacher, a bearded, caring sage, is photogenic enough that he, not Robin Williams, could play the part if To Be and To Have were ever remade as a fictional feature.

A class of only 13 students is an expensive luxury few districts could afford, and a teacher as dedicated as Lopez is hard to find at any price. The lesson in To Be and To Have is not that a return to one-class schoolrooms is the solution to problems plaguing Paris and San Antonio. A renewed respect for learning is. •

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