The plot of Bertrand Tavernier’s classroom drama, It All Starts Today (Ca Commence Aujourd’hui), has the characteristics of a tv movie-of-the-week, with a Gallic accent. A conscientious school director in a depressed Northern French mining community, Daniel Lefebvre (Philippe Torreton) struggles day after day against his community’s failure to support their educational system and the consequential abandonment of children from impoverished and occasionally abusive families. The local political leadership, ironically led by a Socialist mayor, confronts an over 30% unemployment rate and has limited financial resources to meet growing social inequities.
Seemingly ashamed of their working class roots, the leaders of the city take on a rah-rah boosterism to deny their problems through a diversionary rhetoric. “No more Germinal” is their buzz phrase, a self-conscious reference to Zola’s harrowing chronicle of life in the mines. Daniel scoffs at their assumption that one can so easily sever affinity with the region’s past or rectify the chaos of the present through bureaucratic double speak.
Daniel habitually butts heads with the powers that be and stakes his personal and professional reputation on his commitment to a seemingly endless parade of underfed, ill-clothed, and emotionally abandoned small children. He recognizes that their success in his pre-school classroom is virtually all that stands between them and near obliteration by a ruthless social milieu. Neither a romantic nor an idealist, Daniel takes on one task at a time, and the only perspective or analysis he offers is in a manuscript he is writing, passages of which enter the narrative as voice-over interjections.
At home, Daniel seeks to relieve the pressures of work through his involvement with a sculptor, Valeria (Maria Pitaressi), and her adolescent son. While Daniel makes sense of the chaos about him in his writing, Valeria attempts to create works of art out of the very detritus of their environment, and assembles her sculptures from the bric-a-brac found therein. Valeria is a child of the working class and supports her artistic avocation by waitressing in her parents’ café. Similarly, Daniel is the son of a miner who emotionally and physically abused him as a child, and like his paramour, has a tenacious attachment to the region of his birth and its inhabitants’ struggle for survival.
If the plot of It All Starts Today appears to amount to little more than a series of confrontations between Daniel and an intractable bureaucracy, Tavernier makes the film rich in character and resonant with visual energy. Tavernier never reduces his scenes to a succession of talking heads. Instead, he shoots in widescreen with a jagged, incessantly moving camera style that darts in and around the drama. So physically vigorous is It All Starts Today that at times, it resembles an action picture staged before blackboards and on playgrounds. And rightly so, as Daniel perceives his life as a virtual battle that he must fight, for his students’ survival and the preservation of his own humanity.
At the same time, Daniel is neither excessively noble nor without flaws. Prone to self-righteousness, he almost reflexively instigates arguments. While he frequently finds the means to solve immediate problems, just as often Daniel merely spews bile against the representatives of a system he has come to believe is immovable and insular. This free-flowing negativity even colors his home life with Valeria, who values his commitment to social change as much as she challenges his obsessive attachment to his job.
As Daniel, Torreton embodies the complexity of this divided consciousness with consummate artistry. For anyone who has taught small children, Torreton embodies some of the most invaluable qualities of committed pedagogy as if he were a veteran instructor. He persistently and supportively provides verbal and physical feedback to his class, complimenting them on their performances or encouraging a shy or aggressive individual to commit to the group.
At a time when, in many schools, physical interaction between teacher and student is frowned upon, to say the least, Terreton’s performance also reminds us of the importance of the tactile in education. These boys and girls are reassured of their teacher’s respect for them and commitment to their future by his avuncular manner, the ease with which the days end with hugs and kisses on the cheek.
It All Starts Today can be at times as blunt and unremitting as its protagonist; Tavernier allows a fair amount of information about the obstacles that teachers face to be delivered as diatribes, for instance. However, the attention paid to the mundane but infinitely meaningful details of daily life counterbalance any propagandizing, and the film becomes something of a celebration of perseverance. At film’s end, Daniel plans a day of events that allows the children, and the larger community, to take time away from the demands of their lives and to enjoy their successes. This temporary respite provides a deserved sense of resolution to It All Starts Today, without short-sighting the fact that the struggle continues, one child at a time.