Film review: "Monsieur Lazhar"

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 November, 2012, 2:52pm

Starring: Mohamed Fellag, Sophie Nelisse, Emilien Neron

Director: Philippe Falardeau.

Category: IIA (French)

Canada's Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee for 2012, Monsieur Lazhar is not just another tale of an inspirational teacher and his precocious students. Far from ordinary, the French language feature - written and directed by Philippe Falardeau - is a rare tour-de-force from a filmmaker intimately in touch with his material.

Set in a Montreal suburb with a deceptively simple and naturalistic narrative, the story starts on a tragic note. A teacher is found hanged one morning in her classroom. The suicide leaves the children distraught, but it's their teachers and parents who are even more anxious as they try to protect the pre-teens. A psychologist is brought in, a code of silence imposed, and the suicide scene is literally whitewashed with new paint before a replacement is hired.

The new recruit is a recent immigrant from Algeria named Bachir Lazhar. Despite some shortcomings with local slangs, the genial substitute quickly bonds with his charges. In turn, he is taught the school's politically correct policies which include no physical contact - neither corporal punishment nor affection. Lazhar has his own secrets, including a deeply personal and devastating family tragedy.

The story threads, like everything in the film, are woven with gentle warmth and subtlety. Characters aren't stereotypes. The children do not talk like smart-alec comedians and the meek Monsieur Lazhar isn't a provocative fount of enlightenment. When a middle-aged female teacher awkwardly invites him to dinner, she isn't ridiculed for spinster laughs but made more endearing. Even the gym teacher (Jules Philip) who appears to be just a dumb jock has his cynicism explained with cause.

Falardeau nurtures the drama with the thoughtful guidance of a popular teacher. When the denouement arrives in the form of a lovely classroom fable, it actually packs a dramatic punch that requires neither orchestral overture nor emoting character outburst.

This is a film of great empathy and heart. It also appreciates that grieving and moving on are complex matters for the human psyche, and even more tenuous in children. Some children are simply more resilient than adults. But the film also acknowledges that others are not.

The road to catharsis - for teachers or students - is not simple in Monsieur Lazhar, but the film negotiates this tricky path with a delicate and deft masterstroke. In a school where a hug could be construed as more than a hug, sometimes what a child needs most is a hug.

Andrew Sun

Monsieur Lazhar opens today