Filmmaker Celina Murga applies her sensitive, observant perspective on young people’s behavior and thoughts to her superb foray into nonfiction, “Normal School.” Set in the public (or “normal”) school Murga attended in the Argentine city of Parana (also the nation’s first such institution), the pic is cinema verite par excellence, eagerly curious to take in whatever happens in front of the camera, yet also satisfyingly informed by selectively edited material shot during Argentina’s bicentennial year. Fest and tube play, plus limited theatrical runs, are assured.
Argentina’s public schools were established by politically progressive President Domingo Sarmiento in 1871, to provide a curriculum of “norms” as a way of defining and determining the country’s citizenry. Rather than serve up dry explanations of origin and purpose, however, the docu immediately jumps into school sessions, as officials tend to such details as bathroom appliances, and students wrestle with various and primarily humanities-related topics.
What captures Murga’s ever-watchful eyes and ears are the student politicians, who at this age tend to be among any school’s keenest and most dedicated minds. This proves true here as well, though they’re not above “throwing mud,” as one accuses the other while two party slates vie during an election campaign. One girl remarks that being in politics is “so hard,” and that, in the real world of politics, one could “get killed.”
Nothing quite so grim happens in “Normal School,” which seems to play as a contemporary response to Frederick Wiseman’s 1968 docu “High School,” albeit in an entirely different cultural setting. A la Wiseman, Murga (shooting on color HD, often deploying long-focal-length lenses) maintains a steady distance from her subjects while remaining close enough to intimately observe, achieving a cinematic balance also apparent in Murga’s fiction features “Ana and the Others” and “A Week Alone.”
Because of the political content, which spills over into a teachers’ conference full of concerned discussion on the quality of curricula and student involvement, the pic also carries echoes of last year’s acclaimed Argentine entry “The Student,” by Santiago Mitre, dramatizing student politics at the university level. (“Normal School,” it should be noted, was still in production when Mitre’s pic premiered at Buenos Aires in 2011.) At the high-school level, however, Murga finds that students, still somewhat innocent, aren’t nearly as ideologically driven as depicted in “The Student.”
Ace lenser Fernando Lockett seems to be everywhere in the school, keeping up with some ever-active administrators (such as one hunting down girls allegedly tossing water balloons) and then remaining in calm repose during lengthy, fascinating student discussions. Perfect capper reps a sure sign that a real artist is shaping the verite material.