Nicolas Philibert observes life inside a one-room schoolhouse in northern France in his documentary To Be and to Have, one of the best films of the year. This fly-on-the-wall experiment will especially appeal to those with fond memories of elementary school or anyone who finds the innocence of small children endearing. A man leaving the film’s New York Film Festival press screening observed that he didn’t realize he was watching a documentary until the mid-way point; indeed, only once does Philibert directly address one of his subjects, and his establishing shots (pet turtles running loose inside a classroom, snowy elm trees swaying in the wind) are so ethereal they evoke something out of great fiction. Georges Lopez is father figure to a group of small children and young teenagers who share his classroom, and via the film’s rhetorical mood-breaker, he reveals the origins of his family, his undying affection for his work, and the children he helps shepherd into adulthood. Every child has a shtick: JoJo gets his hands dirty, Alizé tries to use the copying machine, Julien prefers “pal” to “friend,” and Létitia can’t walk fast enough despite the falling rain. Lopez treats his pupils with the gentleness and grace their parent’s lack. When he announces his imminent retirement, the horror and confusion on the children’s faces is devastating. It’s not until they leave the classroom that this great man allows himself to shed a tear. Like Wiseman, Philibert allows the subject matter to speak for itself, though Wiseman has never made a film that risked this kind of warmth.
More impressive than your average New Yorker Video release, this To Be and to Have DVD features a surprisingly active soundtrack. There's some hissing and popping here and there, but dialogue is generally well recorded throughout. The image quality doesn't fare as well. Though the print is generally clean, it's unfortunately flat looking, which makes the overall film experience a dreary one.
Nothing to stop the presses over, but Nicolas Philibert's 20-minute interview is impressive. The director discusses at length his aesthetic approach (his evocation of "literal and figurative relief" using small rather than fantastic events) and the spiritual challenge faced by the children at the end of his film. Rounding out the disc is a series of "poetry" outtakes and the film's French and U.S. trailer.
Its so-so audio/video treatment means the DVD isn't a keeper, but the film is good enough to merit at least a rental.