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'The Gleaners and I'

Playful, thoughtful Varda documentary moves from farm fields to trash bins to art

Friday, June 22, 2001

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

Agnes Varda, the venerable French filmmaker, is getting age spots on her hands. Her hair is turning gray. There is mold in a corner of the ceiling in her house. But at age 73, her mind is as fresh and agile as ever.

    'The Gleaners and I"

RATING: Unrated; contains no objectionable material.

NARRATOR: Agnes Varda.

DIRECTOR: Agnes Varda.

CRITIC'S CALL: 3 stars.


Her latest movie, "The Gleaners and I," now at the Denis Theater, begins with Jean-Francois Millet's 1867 painting "Les Glaneuses," which shows women in a field stooping over to pick wheat.

Soon, Varda's documentary is showcasing contemporary gleaners as they take the leavings from farm fields after harvest and the leftovers of a society that throws away too much useful stuff for too many of the wrong reasons.

By the time her movie ends, she gets us thinking about waste, poverty, age and decay, art and renewal, curiosity and serendipity. Varda acts as our narrator and occasional on-screen guide, skipping playfully and sometimes almost instantaneously from theme to theme, using the practice of gleaning as her jumping-off point.

Apparently, gleaning is not just a tradition in France -- it actually has the protection of law (as a lawyer tells us, standing in a wheat field wearing sober judge's robes and a bit of a twinkle in his eye). You can comb over a farm field only after the harvest is complete and only during daylight hours.

But you can also go where truckloads of perfectly good potatoes are left to rot because people prefer to buy only a certain size of spud and these are too large or too small. Varda follows one of these gleaners to his home, an old trailer in the country, one of several that forms a community of people who have fallen through society's cracks.

In the cities, she shows us people who scavenge through garbage and trash, including a man who for a decade has eaten nothing but food retrieved from Dumpsters -- not because of need but as a matter of principle. Another man scavenges by day and teaches immigrants at night. Others pick up discarded items of furniture -- again, perfectly legal. Varda herself fancies a clock without hands.

But she also introduces us to people who make art out of litter, or at least what other people consider to be litter. She includes herself in this, driving through France with her new digital video camera and recording people she happens to come across. She examines herself as gleaner and as something gleaned, no longer new and not necessarily profitable -- she makes documentaries, after all.

But, as "The Gleaners and I" demonstrates, she remains something of value.

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