To watch is to learn. To understand is to love. There are so many pure hopes one can hold for the documentary film form.

Nicolas Philibert's quiet 2002 masterpiece, To Be and To Have (Etre et Avoir), is a magnificent construction of empathy, a quietly heartfelt portrait of a dozen or so pupils in a single-room school in an isolated French farming village in the middle of winter.

The town called Saint-Etienne sur Usson, is in Auvergne, and the children are named Alize, Axel, Guillaume, Jessie, Jojo, Johann, Jonathan, Julien, Laura, Letitia, Marie-Elisabeth, Natalie and Olivier. An hour and three-quarters after the film begins, you know them -- so well, achingly well -- by name, by face, by quirk.

The teacher's name is Georges Lopez. He's 55, soon to retire. From first sight, he could be the portrait of an urban academic: Black sweater, groomed gray goatee, rimless glasses. Instead he is a vestige, a teacher whose connection to a community is immediately clear, important and vital. Lopez is all patience and quiet experience. We watch his concerted cajoling of these children, assured yet kind, and Philibert constructs his film as the illusion of an inevitable, serene succession of lessons floating past, like a French roman fleuve, or, a story that is a river of narrative. Philibert has suggested his is a film "without a subject -- not on but at school." Its rustic character led to accusations of sentimentality, but it is more than a minor-key fairy tale. Instead, it is a laboratory in which we can follow an experiment.

To Be and To Have is a portrait of a group of individuals. It is admiring of a time and of an intimate pedagogical style that has largely passed in Western culture. Philibert's vision of these days whiled away at school through the change of seasons, with the kids aged from primary to middle school, is idyllic enough to have elicited charges of the movie being reactionary. In fact, it's a song to individuality.

Philibert's camera regards the children as curious, unformed, charming without effort, quietly beguiling - as individuals as cute and mysterious as kittens. You think of innocence, and you wonder, when was mine lost? A viewer's attention might drift occasionally from the narrative, but then another child behaves in a fashion that is, precisely, childlike: darling and undomesticated, life's damage still minor, the hopeful glow of potential, of better lives, of a better world.

Lopez is also a dream of a teacher, implying an intimacy, a consoling, edifying awareness of the past and its lesson, instead of being the human equivalent of a hen, learning to give over golden eggs. The school seems like an extension of home instead of an assembly line.

The kids essentially ignore the film camera. The moment we might realize that, Philibert cuts to cattle being herded in the rain, their gaze balefully regarding the camera operators and audience.

But there are eruptions. We glimpse Lopez's loving nudges toward socialization, individuality, the crafting of means to learn. Some kids get mad, some fight, some are inexpressive with spite. We see the fearful, ragged pissedness of temper one can't yet comprehend.

There is the patient gaze of the teacher and of the documentary camera. Two older boys who've fought rest their elbows on place mats that are maps of France. The larger of the two is compulsively cracking his knuckles: a lecture that words can hurt more than actions.

Dealing with a troubled boy whose father has cancer, Philibert cuts to a shot of a field of wheat, ruffling with wind. One stark tree waves, as well. Landscapes can be history and narrative, too. While his movie is a documentary shot on film, Philibert is also kindred spirits with Abbas Kiarostami, the leading Iranian master of minimalism, who often prefers similar shots of a horizon, a faraway tree or winding roadways to routine plot developments. (Kiarostami's lovingly observed movies, such as The Wind Will Carry Us or The Taste of Cherry, are available on DVD.)

Philibert's eye is more tender than cute. He hasn't made Merde! Kids Do the Darnedest Things! At one boy's home, as his mother tries to figure out his math problems, the camera catches a little sister with artlessly tangled hair; she's bruised, cut, with scabby legs and in constant motion. "A real child!" You want to cry out. The distraction has been sly: We now have the gift of a shot in the family kitchen like a 17th-century Dutch genre painting. Mom and boy still sit, but there are four other adult figures leaned over the tablecloth, over the problem, struggling with its elements.

To Be and To Have is a humane film, a thoughtful, hope-filled masterpiece of empathy. "Is this place better than Tahiti?" one child asks, and they know the answer. Lopez tells his ambitions near the end of the film, and the expression on his face when the last child leaves for summer tells a story you can't forget.

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