In To Be and to Have the French documentarian Nicolas Philibert takes us, on tiptoe, into a small school in a rural part of the Auvergne to observe the lives of a dozen children (ranging in age from four to 11) and their teacher, Georges Lopez. The film is as quiet, patient and tenacious as Lopez himself, who approaches his difficult, endless work with remarkable serenity and discipline.
Philibert spent nearly a year in Lopez's classroom, and he has edited 600 hours of film into a slow, subtle chronicle that follows the cycle of the seasons, from mud to snow to green fields and warm sunshine.
He only rarely ventures beyond the gates of the tiny schoolhouse into the lives of the children and their instructor. There is a brief interview with the teacher (or "master," as his pupils address him), during which he explains the combination of upward mobility and social concern that brought him, the son of a migrant laborer from Spain, into his profession.
Other than that, we learn very little about him. He is 55, apparently single and nearing retirement: if he has any connections or interests outside teaching, Philibert declines to show them.
Similarly we meet only a few of the children's parents.
There is only one home visit, a scene of math homework at the kitchen table, during which the parents of one of Lopez's older students show themselves to be confused by the assignment and devoted to the smack-in-the-head theory of pedagogy.
Lopez's own methods are less punitive but nonetheless strict. In France education remains rooted in tradition.
The school day in St.Etienne-sur-Usson is full of drills, formal exercises and dictation, that staple of French education in which a teacher recites a passage from literature and the students dutifully copy it down.
The interest of To Be and to Have, though, is not sociological: it is not really about the French educational system, rural life or even the way children learn.
It is, rather, the portrait of an artist, a man whose work combines discipline and inspiration and unfolds mysteriously and imperceptibly. The film is also a meditation on the enigma of young lives and young minds.
The daily dramas that Lopez encounters -- fights, inattentiveness, sloppy work -- are familiar almost to the point of banality but seen anew, and from the outside they seem like incidents unfolding in some enchanted, half-submerged realm, whose codes only Lopez understands.
The film meanders toward summer, finding a moment of suspense when the oldest
students must await the results of their middle-school entrance exam, which will determine whether they move on from Lopez's intimate garden of learning to the big, bureaucratic regional middle school.
And at the end there is a poignant moment when the impassive, calm teacher fights back tears as he says goodbye to his charges, some for the last time.