Although the director of this feature is identified as "George Lopez," Judge Neal Solon found that it's about a French schoolteacher, not a wacky Latino comic and his television family.
"Last year, the children of an isolated village, in the heart of Auvergne, made their school teacher…an international celebrity."
This film is a beautiful, real-life portrait of schoolteacher in the south of France. It paints its picture without using the voices of the director or the characters, but by letting life unfold on screen. The greatness of the schoolteacher's ability is undeniable. The greatness of the film, however, is the question at hand.
Facts of the Case
Grade school is an experience that is almost universal throughout the developed world. While educational systems may vary from place to place, most people have favorite teachers that they remember—teachers who taught them more than anyone else; who seemed to care like few others did. Georges Lopez is one of those teachers. This film is the story of a year in his classroom.
One of the mantras of introductory-level creative writing classes has long been "Don't tell me; show me." The need for this phrase arises out of the tendency of inexperienced writers to list things that happen in a story, or to list the traits of the characters, instead of allowing the action in and the environment of the story to reveal these things over time. Most great stories let the details speak for themselves; most great films do too.
One of the most obvious exceptions to this generalization is documentary film. Documentaries are different from most films, in that they often don't create stories on screen for the viewer; instead, they retell stories that have already happened. In doing so, they are often forced to tell much of the story instead of showing it. They are full of narrators and interviewees who explain the story and its intricacies for everyone who is watching. With To Be and to Have, however, director Nicholas Philibert chooses to follow more traditional storytelling methods, showing everything and telling very little. It is this approach that triggers the film's biggest strengths—and its biggest weaknesses.
To Be and to Have follows teacher Georges Lopez and his 13 students throughout Lopez's last year in the classroom. The children range in age from three to eleven. Watching the film, the kids' personalities take center stage. Jojo, one of the younger kids whose face graces the DVD cover, is quickly recognizable. He is always striving to be the center of attention. Many other personalities are there as well. The viewer learns to recognize them; Monsieur Lopez has to deal with them.
What this film presents is actual footage of Lopez in the classroom, teaching his students. Only for three minutes, about an hour into the film, does Lopez directly address the camera. Other than this, Philibert and his crew are like one giant fly on the wall, observing Lopez and his students in the classroom, and the students and their families in their homes. The scenes from the students' homes provide the viewer with an interesting glimpse into the rural French lives of the children. The classroom scenes provide the heart of the film: a glimpse of the incredible everyday task of not only controlling all of the distinct personalities in the room, but also of teaching the young human beings who possess them.
The beauty of To Be and to Have is found in the ease and patience with which Lopez seems to handle this difficult task of teaching all of these students at once. Ask any teacher, and he or she can easily describe the amount of work that goes in to teaching 30 students one thing. Few would be able to speak to the work that must go into simultaneously teaching 13 students 13 individual lessons. Lopez seems to do it effortlessly. Certainly his years of teaching the same tasks to different students have helped to prepare him for this, but one must assume that there is still significant planning and work outside of the classroom that goes into making sure he is ready for each day.
Lopez takes conflicts between students and the everyday setbacks of learning in stride. One can tell that the students respect Lopez, as do the parents who visit the school. Ultimately, the viewer does too. The emotional attachments between the instructor and his pupils are obvious. There is also an obvious attachment of the instructor to his profession. Beyond emotional attachment, there is a genuine talent; a capacity for teaching that first-year teachers only dream about.
In the end, Lopez's talent is the central character of the film, but the supporting cast—the students, the parents, Lopez himself—are what get your attention and draw you in. Whether the film itself will keep your attention is another question entirely. It has already been established that only three minutes of this more than 100 minute film is comprised of someone on screen actually doing something directed toward the camera or for the benefit of those watching the film. These are the three minutes in which Georges Lopez tells the story of his family and how he got into teaching. The rest of the film is just footage of normal days, presumably the way they would have transpired were there no cameras present. In other words, nothing extraordinary happens!
In choosing to construct his film this way—to show the audience everything and to tell them practically nothing—Nicholas Philibert failed to convey one very important thing: the point. The beauty in the film is obvious, as is the beauty in the children and in Lopez' teaching. One must assume, however, that this simple beauty will not be enough to compel most people to watch this film more than once.
The film seems to lack a broader purpose or relevance. Certainly, there is a nobility to making a film about the smaller things in life; about the beauty of the mundane. If Philibert's intent was to capture the work of a master teacher and preserve it for posterity (as the fact that one of the copyright holders on the back of the DVD is the French National Center of Pedagogical Documentation would seem to suggest), then he has succeeded. He has more than succeeded; he has created a beautiful product. If Philibert's intent was something greater, it gets lost in the storytelling, or the lack thereof. Either way, there is little here to bring viewers back a second time.
The DVD presentation of To Be and to Have is respectable. Both the video and audio serve their purpose cleanly and with little fanfare. The film is presented in an anamorphic widescreen transfer accompanied by its original mono French soundtrack. The film looks good, as it should, and the mono soundtrack clearly conveys the dialogue and ambient sounds that are the only pertinent information on the track.
As far as extras, there are a few of interest. First and most substantial is a twenty-minute interview with director Nicholas Philibert. He waxes philosophical on documentary filmmaking, he describes why he selected Lopez's classroom, and he discusses some of the scenes from the movie and the parallels he intended to draw between herding cattle and teaching children. In all, it's an interesting interview, if a little self-indulgent.
Next up is montage of students from the film reciting poetry for their class and for the cameras. It's done to mixed effect, with some students having an easier time than others, but it proves mildly entertaining to watch. It's full of those cute moments that draw you to the kids in the first place.
In the end, my mixed feelings about this film are obvious. It is beautiful; but it is beautiful in the way that a painting in a museum viewed out of historical and social context might be beautiful. I can appreciate it for what it is, but having seen it, I see no compelling reason to return just to see it again. To Be and to Have is certainly worth seeing—if you have the patience to watch real life unfold on screen—but it's a film that few will want to own.
Monsieur Lopez and his students are acquitted of all charges, though the director is asked to provide compelling evidence why the court should consider revisiting his case. Finally, New Yorker Films is guilty of the unnecessary Anglicization of Mr. Lopez's name. It's "Georges" not "George"! Case dismissed!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
• Interview with Director Nicolas Philibert
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