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Finding poetry in a French schoolhouse

Nicolas Philibert's "To Be and to Have" documents a year in the life of a small schoolhouse in central France. The director parked his camera in a corner and watched as teacher Georges Lopez meticulously prepared his classroom, five mornings a week, for the dozen or so children who showed up to learn and play.

Nothing momentous happens here, but Philibert has a magical, sneakily moving sense of how to find the poetry in the universal routine of being a kid. Throughout, he marks the seasons with cutaways to the countryside, and it's clear the time of year is of a piece with the recesses and field trips and picnics.

Very quietly, "To Be and to Have" elevates documentary to a sublime pastoral.

After the first 30 minutes I was rapt but unsure where to lay my appreciation. Then, in a surprising scene, the movie reveals itself. Lopez tells his students he's going to retire after 30 years of teaching. They all look crestfallen. Someone starts to sniffle. How will they go on without him? The more heartbreaking question is, how will he go on without them?

The devotion Lopez has inspired in his young charges and the sway that this beautiful swath of France has over these kids is remarkable. After Lopez's retirement bomb is dropped, the children want to know what's next.

Will he continue to live above the school? Where will he go? Tahiti, someone intones. He says, "No," and asks his depressed audience if they'd prefer Tahiti to this place. They all agree: This place is better. (New Yorker, $29.95)

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