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To Be and To Have (Etre et avoir)

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Winner of the top jury prize at last year's Full Frame fest, and a box office smash in France two years ago, Nicholas Philibert's documentary traces a year in the life of a one-room schoolhouse in the French countryside and the final year before retirement of Georges Lopez, the school's remarkably patient and wise teacher.

With its gorgeous photography and graceful pacing, To Be and To Have records in equal measure the small epiphanies and the daily headaches of playing pedagogue, mediator, guidance counselor, confidante and social worker to a roomful of children. Some of the problems are universal: We see Lopez urging two antagonistic boys to make peace and helping another student with her paralyzing shyness. Elsewhere, Lopez gently combats a traditional farming community's modest regard for education by urging greater parental involvement in their children's academic progress.

The reserved but unfailingly authoritative Lopez himself is a saintly enigma. A handsome, apparently celibate man, he seems to have found his calling in this remote schoolhouse. Philibert's filmmaking follows the classic non-intrusive model--no narration, no interviews--but Lopez is so self-effacing that the director finally relents and has the teacher discuss his life, albeit briefly, directly to the camera.

If the film somewhat unavoidably evokes nostalgia for a nearly vanished way of life, it also provides a window into the possibilities of a life spent quietly ushering children into the wider world of adolescence, season after season after season. This is a rapturous experience.

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