(Music Box Films) Only now seeing its American release, Monsieur Lazhar has already established an impressive pedigree having picked up a host of international awards and nominations including a Genie award for best picture, a Toronto International Film Festival award for best Canadian feature film, and an Oscar nomination for best foreign language film. This recognition is well deserved and should help raise awareness of burgeoning Canadian filmmaker Philippe Falardeau (It’s Not Me I Swear, and Congorama) who manages to effortlessly merge themes of heartache and whimsy while allowing us to explore the dark waters of suicide and loss from a safe distance. More specifically, Monsieur Lazhar meditates on the notion of barriers, be they personal, social, cultural, or even political.
The catalyst for this investigation begins when a young middle school student named Simon first discovers the body of his teacher after she hangs herself from the classroom rafters. The scene pays homage to the cinéma vérité style through its use of one extended uninterrupted take that masterfully builds to a fevered tension (this is in sharp contrast to the film’s otherwise beautiful and often-tranquil cinematography). Here the topic of death quite literally crosses into the classroom forcing a taboo subject on both the students and the administration.
Algerian immigrant Bachir Lazhar (Mohammed Fellag) is hired by the school as a temporary replacement to teach the class of bereft students while concealing his own recent trauma, the death of his wife and two children at the hands of Algerian forces. Lazhar is an immediately likeable character with a warm smile and a genuine interest in both his student’s education and wellbeing, but it quickly becomes clear that he is using this teaching opportunity as an escape from his own troubles in much the same way the school is using his presence to escape theirs.
Mohammed Fellag’s nuanced performance shapes Lazhar into a deep and compelling individual whose kindness and understanding seems driven by an impossibly deep sorrow as he struggles with the loss of his family. While we rarely see this undercurrent directly, it always arises organically rather than through gratuitous pining over old photographs, and its personal undertow is felt throughout the film. Lazhar is also in the throws of a legal deportation case as he desperately fights to stay in Canada in order to avoid the same fate suffered by his family. These scenes are infrequent to the point where this almost becomes a B-plot to the main story, but still adds an important level of urgency to Lazhar’s situation.
Equally impressive are the child actors that make up Lazhar’s class, especially first time actors Sophie Nélisse and Émilien Néron who play Alice and Simon respectively. Simon is wracked with unwarranted guilt surrounding what he believes to be his involvement with his teacher’s suicide. This anxiety builds until it boils over in violent or disruptive outbursts. In contrast, Alice is more emotionally subdued despite not being able to sleep due to the haunting image of her deceased teacher (she and Simon were the only students who actually bore witness to the body after the incident). Both of these performances are complex, filled with life, and carry a level of understanding well beyond their years.
Woven into the fabric of this film is poignant sense of humor and lightness that does more than simply act as a reprieve from the film’s subject matter, it serves as a vehicle that helps these characters heal amid their own spheres of pain and confusion. In fact, this film’s happiness is infectious primarily because it is so firmly grounded in such difficult real world experiences. Taking a class with Monsieur Lazhar may not be easy, but it is a rewarding journey filled with vitality and one that will linger long after you close the books.
For Fans Of: To Sir With Love, Good Will Hunting, Kid With the Bike, Millions, The 400 Blows, Flight of the Red Balloon, Waiting For Superman
Why We Like It: Finding life in sorrow, keeping an eye on director Philippe Falardeau, and the subtly beautiful cinematography