It All Starts Today (Ça commence aujourd'hui)
Screenplay : Dominique Sampiero, Bertrand Tavernier, Tiffany Tavernier
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 2000
Stars : Philippe Torreton (Daniel Lefebvre), Maria Pitarresi (Valeria), Nadia Kaci (Samia Damouni), Véronique Ataly (Mrs. Lienard), Nathalie Bécue (Cathy), Emmanuelle Bercot (Mrs. Tievaux), Françoise Bette (Mrs. Delacourt), Christine Citti (Mrs. Baudoin), Christina Crevillen (Sophie), Sylviane Goudal (Gloria), Didier Bezace (Inspector)
Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Try the rough water as well as the smooth. Rough water can teach lessons worth knowing."
Bertrand Tavernier's "It All Starts Today" ("Ça commence aujourd'hui") is about children who have never known anything but the rough water. It tells the story of Daniel Lefebvre (Philippe Torreton), the director of a kindergarten program in a small mining town in northern France that is inflicted with 34% unemployment since the closing of the mines. Every morning he watches as children enter his school filthy, cold, and unfed, and every afternoon he approaches their parents, asking them to help their children, only to be told there is nothing they can do.
Many of the families live in a housing project that has not had electricity for six months. One of the saddest scenes in the film depicts Daniel having to take home two children who were abandoned at school by their drunk mother. He watches as the five-year-old girl searches out a flashlight, the beam of which cuts through the darkness to show months' worth of trash and debris littering the floor of the squalid apartment.
Much of the narrative follows the daily life of Daniel over a school year as he attempts to work with, and often ends up fighting against, governmental bureaucracies that say they want to help, yet are constantly cutting funding and reducing the number of workers. Daniel knows he is lucky to have a staff of well-trained and dedicated teachers, and he gets further help from Samia (Nadia Kaci), a strong-willed social worker who has the strong ability to cut through the red tape and get things done.
Daniel is also aided by his girlfriend, Valeria (Maria Pitarresi), a sculptress who has a young son with whom Daniel has a strained relationship. Daniel is also faced with the possible death of his elderly father, a retired miner who didn't always treat Daniel well as a child. Thus, no part of Daniel's life is easy, and many of the same cycles of familial violence and monetary struggles that afflict his students have also been a part of his life.
"It All Starts Today" works principally through the force of its undeniable realism. One of the screenwriters, Dominique Sampiero, has 20 years experience in Daniel's shoes as the director of a school in a poverty-stricken region in northern France. This, in combination with Bertrand Tavernier's assured direction and the excellent performances by all involved, ensure that at no point does the film ever feel overwrought or sensationalistic.
Tavernier shot the film in simple, realistic fashion. There is no flashy editing or gaudy camera movement. Much of it relies of hand-held camerawork and the use of the Steadicam to bring the audience in close to Daniel's daily routines. Cinematographer Alain Choquart works with a palette of earthy colors and cloudy skies that often emphasizes the difficult faced by the characters in a beautiful, but harsh environment.
At the same time, Tavernier contrasts the visual starkness with a poetic voice-over narrative by Daniel, who is an aspiring writer. There is a simply beauty to Daniel's poetry, yet it is also fraught with despair. At one point in the voice-over, he says, "We want to show we care. Take him by the hand, for instance. We're there, yet we do nothing. Life runs its course, we've done nothing."
Tavernier keeps the characters at the forefront of the story, and rather than condemning the jobless parents and their human flaws, he attacks the system that allows such rampant unemployment to ravage an entire region. When one family becomes so desperate that they kill their children and then commit suicide rather than facing another day of watching their children cold and hungry, it is hard to feel anger or even surprise at their action. Tavernier makes it clear that these are desperate people who feel that there is no other alternative.
While this makes the film sound like a bleak and depressing indictment of failed social systems, "It All Starts Today" is not so easily defined. In many ways it is an uplifting film. Yes, it takes place in the bleakest of circumstances, yet it is in such situations that basic humanity can rise to the occasion. There is no overt or exaggerated heroism; rather, the film is filled with average people like Daniel and his teachers who simply do the best they can. Sometimes, it is not enough. But, sometimes, it can make all the difference in the world.
The film ends on a somewhat ambiguous note as the school year comes to a close and many of the children graduate to elementary school. Work has been done, progress has been achieved, yet not much is different. There is still a great deal of unemployment, and we get the sense that another group of poverty-stricken children will enter the school halls in a few months and the cycle will start all over again.
Tavernier ends the film with a montage of shots of the children's faces. In other hands, this could have turned into a sappy, sentimental conclusion that tries to exploit the perceived innocence of childhood. Yet, as Tavernier handles it, it becomes a plea for the future. After all, these children, who have spent have spent their entire lives wading through the rough waters, will some day be the adults in charge of raising the next generation, hopefully in a calmer stream.
©2000 James Kendrick