Saturday, February 4, 2012

Movie Review: Monsieur Lazhar

Monsieur Lazhar *** ½
Directed by: Philippe Falardeau.
Written by: Philippe Falardeau based on the play.
Starring: Mohamed Fellag (Bachir Lazhar), Sophie Nélisse (Alice), Émilien Néron (Simon), Danielle Proulx (Mme Vaillancourt), Brigitte Poupart (Claire Lajoie), Jules Philip (Gaston), Seddik Benslimane (Abdelmalek), Marie-Ève Beauregard (Marie-Frédérique).

I have grown weary of movies about kindly school teachers who come in and help turn a troubled group of students around. We seemingly get at least one of these movies every year – and they follow the same formula of an idealistic teacher, coming in to teach a bunch of kids that everyone else has given up on, and discovers that all they really needed was someone to believe in them. For a while, it seems that perhaps Philippe Falardeau’s Monsieur Lazhar, an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film from Canada – is going to be simply another one of those films. But the movie ends up going in different, unexpected directions – and while it does build to an emotional climax similar to those other films, this time it feels genuine.

Mohamed Fellag stars as Bachir Lazhar, an immigrant to Montreal from Algeria, who hears about the suicide of a teacher at a Montreal middle school. Not only does the teacher kill herself, she hangs herself in her classroom, and it is a student, Simon (Emiien Neron) who finds her there (as, perhaps, she knew he would). Lazhar comes in with his resume, tells the Principal that he taught for years in Algeria, and he can start right away. It seems that the Principal has little choice – no one else wants to teach in a classroom where someone has killed themselves, so Lazhar gets the job. But he is not quite who he appears to be.

Monsieur Lazhar has few delusions about the life of a teacher. The film knows that one teacher cannot alone change the lives of all of his students – some are unreachable, some are sticklers for the rules, some just don’t care. It also knows the inner workings of a school, and the hierarchy of the teacher’s longue, which can be as political as anything else, and the difficulties of reaching students who, as one teacher puts it, you have to handle like “toxic waste”. Touching them, either to discipline or show encouragement or kindness, is forbidden, lest it be taken the wrong way. Parents, like everyone else, can be assholes and be hard to deal with. And everyone has defined roles. After the suicide of their teacher, the school brings in a psychologist to work with the class. But other than her specified times for coming in, the kids aren’t supposed to talk it – and Lazhar is not supposed to bring it up. The dead teacher presence is still in the room however, and kid’s emotions don’t always coincide with the “schedule” of the psychologist.

I was impressed by much of Monsieur Lazhar – not least of which was the performance by Fellag in the title role. It’s not an easy role – he is a quiet, shy person, who doesn’t tell either his fellow teachers or his students everything that he himself is dealing with – and there’s a lot. But because of those experiences, he is perhaps uniquely qualified to deal with this class. There is one student in particular, Alice (Sophie Nelisse), who is going through a lot of emotions – not just about her former teacher, but also about her mother, and in Lazhar, she sees someone she can talk to – and who relates with her. This is contrasted by Lazhar’s relationship with Simon, who feels responsible for what happened to the teacher, but keeps it bottled up inside of himself – or lashes out in misplaced anger. Lazhar cannot reach every student, but he leaves an impact.

Overall, I think Monsieur Lazhar was a surprising heartfelt and genuine film. It easily could have sunk into broad sentimentality, but it doesn’t. It reminded me somewhat of Laurent Cantent’s excellent film The Class from a few years ago – which was also a more realistic portrait of the life of a teacher, and his students, than we normally get. Monsieur Lazhar doesn’t reach those heights – but it comes close.

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