Hope gets sneaky in 'It All Starts Today'
SOME FILMS sneak up on you. For two hours, you sit there in the dark, staring up at the screen, having a certain kind of experience--sometimes enjoyable, sometimes not. And then, in the last few moments of the film, everything turns upside down and you learn that what you've been experiencing is not what you thought it was.
Think of The Sixth Sense.
It All Starts Today, the new film by French director Bertrand Tavernier (Round Midnight), pulls off a similar, though far superior trick. For 100 minutes, Tavernier makes us think we're watching a film about frustration and hopelessness, a harrowing examination of the frustration of preschool teachers fighting for the futures of their students in the midst of hopeless poverty and abuse. And then, with nothing trickier than a slight shift of focus, he shows us that what we've been watching is, in fact, a lesson in the power of hope.
Daniel Lefebvre (Philippe Torreton, in a flawless, open-hearted performance) runs a publicly funded preschool in Hernaing, a small town in northern France where the unemployment level is rising fast along with the rates of alcoholism, crime, and violence. Though the French government offers low-cost education to children as young as 2 years old--an alternative to babysitting and more costly forms of child care--the program is poorly funded.
The system is also subject to absurd rules and regulations that routinely force the teachers to break the law, as when the teachers pool their own money to buy lunch for the children barred from the school lunch program--their parents didn't turn in the proper paperwork-- or when Lefebvre gives a ride home to a 5-year-old girl whose drunken mother has abandoned her, along with her little brother in a baby carriage, in the schoolyard.
Lefebvre is a good man, and his mounting despair and irrational outbursts of anger are a direct result of the remarkable dedication he has toward the children under his care. His main emotional ally is his resourceful live-in sculptor girlfriend Valeria (Maria Pitaressi), who's overcome her own harrowing childhood in becoming a creator of "beauty from nothing."
By immersing us, for the majority of the film, in the unendingly bleak details of the students' lives, by demonstrating the insurmountable obstacles faced by the teachers, Tavernier brings us to the unbearable conclusion that there is no hope for these children.
When, in the last 15 minutes or so, tiny glimmers of goodness arise--a deaf child finally gets the medical help she needs, Valeria creates a neighborhood celebration using little more than plastic bottles and sand, a trembling parent thanks Lefebvre for his efforts--the effect is astoundingly emotional. After so much sadness and hopelessness, we watch as the teachers and the children gobble up the light as if they'd been starving. We in the seats gobble it up right along with them.
Though the film is French, the situation is not so different from that of many American schools. Few films in any language have so powerfully shown the gargantuan task our teachers face every day. When, at the end, Lefebvre describes the work of his miner father, whose legacy "is a pile of stones and the courage to lift them," we know the words also speak for those who teach, protect, and fight for the futures of our children.
You may leave the theater wanting to give every teacher in sight a great big raise.
'It All Starts Today' opens Friday, March 16, at the Rafael Film Center, 1118 Fourth St., San Rafael. For details, see or call 415/454-1222.
From the March 15-21, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.