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How do we learn to live with others and their wishes? Director Nicolas Philibert poses this question in a village schoolhouse in Auvergne, where Georges Lopez teaches 13 children, ages ranging from about four to 12. Against a landscape of mountains and farmland, from driving snow to rain to sun, the children gather in Lopez's warm and colorful classroom, to read, write dictation, cook, and sort things out. At home, the older ones do homework with parents after their chores. At year's end, they look ahead to the next, visiting the middle school and meeting the little ones coming in the fall. As they learn sums and adjectives, with Lopez's help, they also learn to live side by side. Written by
It's all been done before and looks so easy. Just get a group of cute little kids and a sympathetic adult prompter. Turn a hidden camera on them. Result - a sure-fire winner. And yet one is left with a nagging question - can it have been that easy when the result is something as impressive and beautifully formed as Nicolas Philibert's moving study of a village school in the Auvergne from winter through to summer? It opens with a stunning shot of cattle stoically moving about in a snow storm and continues with the progress of a school minibus as it collects young children from farms and hamlets to take them along snowy tracks to the warm security of a stone schoolhouse and their kindly and sympathetic village schoolmaster. He works alone, dividing his attention between children from four to eleven years of age and somehow succeeds miraculously in catering for their wide variety of needs. Shortly after their arrival I found a few doubts beginning to creep in on a first showing. Some of the interaction between master and pupils seemed to go on for an inordinate amount of time. When cinema adopts the role of recording the minutiae of the everyday without the discipline of the cutting scissors, as happens here when the very young children in turn write the word "Maman" and there is an inquest on each, does it not become a little like watching paint dry? And yet - if ever a film deserves patience in overcoming its initial longeurs, this is it. What these opening sequences achieve is to help us know these children as individuals and to become better acquainted with the schoolmaster as he gradually emerges as an almost saintly figure in the way he handles the problems of his charges, the two boys who fight, the girl about to go to secondary school who cannot relate to others, the boy who suddenly breaks down when he speaks of his father's illness and the tiny newcomer who cries for his mother. Such very special moments transcend what could have been an otherwise rather mundane experience; these and the sheer beauty with which the director and his cameraman record the passing of the seasons. The film concludes with the children saying goodbye to their teacher as they leave for their summer holiday. At this point I felt enriched by this brief insight into their lives. My tears were of gratitude for an experience that had touched me in so special a way.
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