By its strictest definition, "gleaning" describes the practice of gathering crops after the harvest, whether it's wheat stalks and corncobs on the ground, apples left in the orchard, or grapes still hanging off the vine. But as Agnès Varda finds in her warm, thoughtful documentary The Gleaners And I, the efficiency of modern farming equipment has curbed what was once a communal activity. Now, gleaners are more likely to be outcasts and loners, forced to sift through the carelessly discarded scraps of a wasteful society. With a skeleton crew and a digital video camera in hand, Varda traipsed through France's countryside and urban centers for more than half a year, discovering small pockets of people who thrive on what others consider disposable. Of course, in doing so, she becomes a gleaner in her own right, patching together a loose, playful assemblage that's part cultural history, part social exposé, and part charming self-portraiture. One of the few remaining stalwarts of the French New Wave, Varda (Cleo From 5 To 7, Vagabond) is in her early 70s, but her curiosity and compassion are still very much in evidence, her disarming personality seeming to put her subjects at ease. Inspired by an 1867 Jean-François Millet painting depicting women with long aprons stooping to collect wheat stalks in a field, Varda begins her journey in potato country, where local gypsies pick from the thousands of tons of rejected crops left to rot in giant piles. Provided they can locate the dumping ground and know to steer clear of the poisonous green potatoes, the gypsies find others perfectly edible—just a little oversized, or too misshapen, for the produce department. But gleaners are largely forbidden in the Burgundy wine region, where surplus grapes are deliberately thrown on the ground to keep foragers away. Varda's city scavengers rifle through hastily abandoned open markets, restaurant Dumpsters, and piles of used furniture and appliances left by the side of the road. One man, though gainfully employed, has lived off food from the garbage for 10 years out of principle, incensed by the thoughtless disposal of leftovers with recent sell-by dates. (At a recent festival screening, he joined Varda in passing out cakes and other trash treasures to the audience.) If The Gleaners And I sounds like a lot of sanctimonious hand-wringing, nothing could be further from the truth. While Varda exposes poverty and excess, her affection and good humor lighten the tone, allowing her points to gently take root. And there's no greater pleasure than watching the director at play with the DV camera, which performs the "dance of the lens cap" as ably as it captures the telltale wrinkles on her hand.
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