Nicolas Philibert's simple but deeply touching documentary a surprise hit in its native France pays tribute to a most unlikely celluloid hero: George Lopez, a humble, soft-spoken schoolteacher in the tiny Auvergne village of Saint-Etienne-sur-Usson. Determined to make a film about rural France's one-room schoolhouses, where children ranging...read more
Nicolas Philibert's simple but deeply touching documentary a surprise hit in its native France pays tribute to a most unlikely celluloid hero: George Lopez, a humble, soft-spoken schoolteacher in the tiny Auvergne village of Saint-Etienne-sur-Usson. Determined to make a film about rural France's one-room schoolhouses, where children ranging in age from 3 to 12 are taught by one teacher in a single classroom, Philibert (IN THE LAND OF THE DEAF) contacted over 300 schools before deciding to spend a term with Mr. Lopez and his students. All 13 come from Saint-Etienne-sur-Usson and its surrounding farms, and aside from a brief interview during which Lopez answers questions about his family and how he came to teach in such a remote part of France, Philibert simply trains his camera on the day-to-day happenings in the schoolroom. Starting in the dead of winter and continuing through till spring, we see the youngest children color and learn to count to seven, while older students take dictation and study grammar; together, they all learn how to make crepes. We witness small crises: a young girl has her eraser stolen, one boy knocks down another by the school gate. Throughout, Lopez engages them in conversation, teaches them to help and respect one another, and challenges the students to follow instructions and behave themselves without ever once resorting to threats. Philibert occasionally follows students home, where they do chores, eat supper and complete their homework, but the most poignant moments come when it becomes clear just how large a role the soon-to-be-retired Lopez plays in his students' lives. Whether commiserating with a boy whose father is seriously ill or gently encouraging a girl too shy to speak in class, Lopez is more than just their teacher he's a counselor and a friend. This may not sound like the stuff of gripping documentary, but the film's serene surface a tone set by Lopez's own cool, calm and always collected demeanor simply reflects the pace of life in a world far removed from urban bustle. The children are simply adorable, and Mr. Lopez emerges without flash or fanfare as the kind of role model rarely seen onscreen. When he finally asks his students what they'd like to be when they grow up, it comes as no surprise when most answer "a teacher" without skipping a beat.
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