A life-size hero fills the screen in 'To Be and To Have'

Movies regularly show us a certain kind of larger-than-life hero, often with a manly swagger, an astonishing superpower, or a swooping way with a sword. Sometimes, though, a thoughtful camera can introduce us to less-flashy but equally heroic figures — far more heroic, in fact, because they're real. In the case of the French documentary "To Be and To Have," that hero is a teacher: Georges Lopez, soon to retire from his longtime position at a tiny village school in France's Auvergne region.

Lopez, a balding, dignified man in his 50s with an unshakable aura of calm, has the sort of mellow baritone that would befit a narrator of a French children's classic. (You can imagine him as the voice of, say, Babar the elephant.) In the film, shot over a period of six months (December 2000 to June 2001), we watch Lopez working with his charges, teaching them verbs, encouraging them to get along with each other, hurrying them through the rain to the van that transports them, reminding them to keep their hands clean. And, in between all of these activities, he's doing what all good teachers do: helping to shape their characters, seeing glimpses of the adults that these children will one day become.

Director Nicolas Philibert ("In the Land of the Deaf") lets his camera become a silent student in the classroom; except for a brief passage in which Lopez quietly addresses the camera (telling us a bit of his own history — his father was a farmhand), the film is entirely made up of impromptu moments with the students. The children — about a dozen of them, ranging from preschoolers to preteens — occasionally seem distracted, smiling toothily at the camera. But for the most part, they're natural and charming, intent on their teacher's face, puzzling through the process of learning.

The smallest children, in particular, are enchanting (one, who arrives late in the film, is so tiny that he still uses a pacifier and cries inconsolably for his maman). Little Jojo, a squirmy adventurer who's nonetheless eager to please, listens carefully as Lopez tells him to try to stay clean — he crosses his arms in a decisive gesture, so as not to touch anything. Two preschoolers struggle to use the classroom's photocopier; the scene at first just feels adorable, then turns into a teaching moment, as the two help each other try to figure it out.

Movie review


"To Be and To Have," a documentary by Nicolas Philibert. 104 minutes. Not rated, suitable for general audiences. In French with English subtitles. Varsity.

The film's title "To Be and To Have," refers to the pair of common French verbs that Lopez teaches his class to conjugate. Philibert might also have added "to show," as his film is a perfect example of showing rather than telling; we're never told how this teacher is changing his students' lives, but we can read it clearly between the lines. Each scene is about more than it seems on the surface; you wonder what these children will remember from those days — not the camera, but the moment when the multiplication table made sense, or the day Monsieur Lopez taught them to flip a perfect crepe.

Watchful viewers — particularly those with fond memories of a favorite teacher — will be deeply moved by this film. At the end, on Lopez's last day, we see his perfect poise altered just a bit; as he says goodbye to his students for the last time, his expression seems to melt. As he told young Nathalie, a fourth-year student saddened by the imminent departure of her beloved teacher, "we have to say goodbye one day." The gate to the school yard is closed for the last time; and the old building, surrounded by green hills, is finally quiet, waiting for another teacher and another season.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com