A good deal of the charm that suffused “Spellbound,” the sleeper documentary smash of earlier this year, also fuels this sweet, ultimately poignant portrait of a year in the life of a one-room school in Auvergne, in central France. In “To Be And To Have,” director-editor Nicolas Philibert, cameramen Katell Djian and Laurent Didier and sound man Julien Cloquet paint an evocative, observant portrait of the thirteen students, ages four through eleven, who come to the school, and of their dedicated teacher, Georges Lopez, who gives them instruction in everything from alphabet and coloring books to cooking and math. Now on the verge of retirement, Lopez has been laboring at the surprisingly modern, well-equipped school for twenty years, and as he nears the end of his career he shows almost supernatural patience in dealing with his charges’ different educational needs, as well as their personal difficulties–because at times he’s a counselor and surrogate parent as much as an instructor. He also comes across, in a few well-chosen strokes, as a real person: an interview in which he talks about his family background is quite moving, and when, at the close, the usually stoic fellow stifles tears as he bids goodbye to the kids for the summer, it’s an affecting moment.
Of course, among the students there’s bound to be a standout too, and here it’s definitely JoJo, the scene-stealer among the “little ones”–a tyke who frequently falls behind in his work and causes a spot of trouble, but is also cheekily lovable, even when he and an equally petite classmate tussle with a copying machine (which, as we’re later shown, is in sudden need of servicing). JoJo is rather like Harry in “Spellbound”–you might find the other children around him likable, but he’s the one for whom most will reserve a hug.
Of course, “To Be And To Have” isn’t intended merely as an arbitrary snapshot of a particular place, but as a kind of sociological argument as well. There’s apparently a movement afoot in France to do away with the sort of tiny local schools depicted here in favor of more efficient, centralized ones, and the film, made with some governmental support, seems designed to comment on what might be lost by their elimination. (Certainly it can be argued that the virtual disappearance of similar schools in the United States, and the consequent diminution of the one-on-one attention they offered, has had an unfortunate effect.) But it’s the particulars of the film, rather than any general theses that might be drawn from it, that will delight all but the most curmudgeonly viewers. One shouldn’t overpraise “To Be And To Have”–it’s hardly earth-shaking, and might best be described as nice. But in this age of mega-blockbusters that run on explosions and special effects, simple human niceness shouldn’t be underrated.