‘To Be and To Have’ an education in boredom | AspenTimes.com

‘To Be and To Have’ an education in boredom

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

The French documentary “To Be and To Have” has no story arc to speak of. If there is any character development, it is barely perceptible. There is no action. Most of the dialogue is, quite literally, on a preschool level. The film, by Nicholas Philibert, is no visual achievement, and doesn’t otherwise break any technical ground.

So here is where I’m supposed to say, despite all that, “To Be and To Have” is an inspiring, heartwarming documentary. Many other reviewers have called it such: The Village Voice called it “riveting”; Entertainment Weekly, which usually devotes itself to more mainstream fare, gushed that “To Be and To Have” is “so superb, so graceful, so strong.”

Sorry, but I can’t bring myself to join this well-intentioned chorus. The fact that “To Be and To Have” is fantastically goodhearted ” the film is about a one-room schoolhouse in rural France, and its devoted teacher ” doesn’t excuse its essential flaw. “To Be and To Have” is boring and, even for the worthiness of its subject matter, as a film it is essentially pointless.

I mean pointless in the most precise way: Throughout its nearly two hours, I couldn’t tell what the film wanted me to see. Did it want me to focus on these characters ” teacher Georges Lopez and his assortment of students, ages 3 to 11 or so? If so, it gave me little access into them. Was there a sense of nostalgia in the rural setting, the occasional landscapes of hills and farm animals, and the one-room school where preschoolers learned side by side with soon-to-be teenagers? There wasn’t much to that. Was I meant to enjoy the quiet, slow-motion quality of “To Be and To Have”? I’d rather sit on top of Smuggler Mountain and watch the quiet, slow-motion action of the sun rising. Seriously.

The best part of “To Be and To Have” is Georges Lopez himself. Lopez, a ringer for “Jaws”-era Roy Scheider, has been teaching for 35 years, 20 of them in the same “single-class school” in Saint-Etienne-sur-Usson, in the south-central French region of Auvergne. Lopez is everything you’d want in your child’s teacher: patient, unwavering, even-keeled. They are, conversely, the last qualities you’d look for in a leading man.

But we learn precious little about Lopez apart from his tranquil demeanor and dedication to his profession. The vast majority of the film is nothing more than Lopez interacting with the children ” teaching them to read and add, helping them through their minidramas, guiding them in matters of schoolroom etiquette. It is hardly riveting stuff. It is perhaps two-thirds of the way through the film when the camera ” finally! ” breaks away from the classroom and catches Lopez on a bench outside the school for some small bit of personal history. (I actually learned more vital information about Lopez from a short article in the French publication Liberation, which was sent as press material accompanying the video.)

Lopez, we learn at last, is in his final year at the school, a fact that lends some meaning to the film. Lopez reveals that his father was an immigrant farm worker from Spain, dissatisfied with his life. Lopez learned from his father’s life that hope, and a brighter future, was to be found in education. It is the one truly poignant moment in the film. The title begins to make sense: “To Be and To Have” refers to what education does for people. It makes them what they are; it gives them tools with which to achieve.

For two hours of my time, that is an awful little to learn.

“To Be and To Have” shows at the Wheeler Opera House Thursday and Friday, Jan. 22-23.

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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