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'It All Stars Today'

French 'It All Stars Today' a whimsical heart-warmer

Saturday, December 09, 2000

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Movie Critic

"Ca commence aujord'hui" -- it all starts today: the caring and toiling and struggling of the new kindergarten year, plus the painful joys integral to that little universe and to this beautiful film by director Bertrand Tavernier.

  If you go. . .

'It All Starts Today'

Rating: Unrated but PG-13 in nature.

Starring: Philippe Torreton, Maria Pitarresi.

Director: Bertrand Tavernier.

Critic's call:


Soft-spoken Daniel (Philippe Torreton) is a whimsical teacher as well as hard-pressed principal of the small-town kindergarten he runs -- the essence of French provincial, in more ways than one.

He is not a magnetic man, introspective to the verge of morose, but his techniques -- full of odd wordplay, group "concept" art projects and eccentric field trips -- are inspired.

His nonsense mantra-dialogues, when memorized and recited, make perfect sense to the kids:

"Are the puppies full of mirth?"

"The spring turned green, it ate too much salad."

"Clouds are blowing above pillars built against the night."

The children dance to the music of the local old-men's brass band. In plastic coveralls, they stroll through paint and stamp footprint decorations on sheets being turned into "Berber tents" in the 2 tons of sand Daniel has dumped in the playground. They fill hundreds of bottles with brilliantly colored water, creating and marching through a magical mystery maze of them.

The latter and other equally ambitious, bizarre projects are the brainstorm contributions of Daniel's girlfriend Valerie (Maria Pitarresi), an avant-garde sculptress who burns "to exhibit for the underprivileged."

Her disaffected son Remi, for his part, burns to know the identity of his father and feuds with surrogate-father Daniel over a terrible incident of vandalism at the school.

Daniel has more reason for melancholy in the impossibly fine line he's forced to walk between teacher and social worker. His school and pupils' families are badly strapped already when the town council delivers another blow by terminating funds for school lunches. With helpless guilt, he sees but can't cure the misery of an exhausted mother -- hauntingly played by Betty Teboulle -- who has garnished wages, no electricity and suicidal despair in her eyes.

"You can love people, but you can't really help them," he is told but can't accept, intervening to remove a battered boy from his mother and abusive "uncle," who shifts the abuse to Daniel. He has all sorts of trouble with parents -- including his own.

Meanwhile, the school inspector (Didier Bezace) supplies ongoing supercilious criticism of his methods and lightening-up of the film. The darkly realistic script, co-written by director Tavernier and Dominique Sampiero, is further lightened by the stunning French countryside and cinematography thereof.

But the most stunning thing about "It All Starts Today" is the performance of Philippe Torreton -- a wonderful teacher played by a wonderful actor, sweetly oblivious to his own non-charismatic charisma, as well as the camera. No Robin Williams-type "star" teacher theatrics or heavy Hollywood pathos here.

That Daniel and the kids and teachers around him are so un-beautiful and "ordinary" -- and so comfortable with their ordinariness -- is what makes the film extraordinary and makes you leave it with a warmer heart.

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