One of the most surprising successes of the past few months in French cinemas has been a feature-length documentary about a village primary school. Nicolas Philibert's Etre et Avoir was made in the tiny commune of Saint-tienne-sur-Usson in the Massif Central. Here, one teacher is responsible for 13 children of primary-school age, all gathered in a single classroom. The film follows a year in the life of the society, the school and its pupils.
The dramatic moments are those that might occur in any village and any school: the shyness of Nathalie, the rows between Olivier and Julien, the family gathering round to help a boy with his maths homework - only to discover that maths may have changed since they were at school. The fly-on-the-wall camera records all this, with warmth and with the art that conceals art, against the idyllic landscape of the Puy-de-Dome.
At the heart of the documentary is the teacher, Georges Lopez, filmed in the year before his retirement after 35 years in the classroom. Firm, yet sympathetic and infinitely patient, he demonstrates how it is possible to keep 13 children of various ages and abilities working together, as he brings his experience to bear on their academic and personal problems: how to teach Olivier and Julien to make up, how to comfort a boy whose father is facing an operation for cancer. Like Lopez, Philibert manages these without a touch of sentimentality. A portrait of a fine teacher and a good man.
To Be and to Have will be released in Britain this summer, but you can catch a preview with three other French movies on the Renault French Film Tour, which is visiting UGC cinemas in London (Fulham Road) and Cardiff from March 7 to 9, in Sheffield and Ipswich (March 14-16), in Glasgow and Edinburgh (March 21-23) and in Didsbury (Manchester) and Birmingham (March 28-30). The season also includes a comedy of manners, Summer Things, starring Charlotte Rampling; a story about the life of exchange students in Barcelona, Pot Luck, directed by Cedric Klapisch; and an offbeat drama, The Man on the Train, directed by Patrice Leconte, starring Jean Rochefort and Johnny Halliday as two men thrown together by unusual circumstances. All are worth seeing; To Be and to Have is not to be missed.