The tour of this past year’s nominees for best foreign language film continues with francophone Canada’s Monsieur Lazhar, and if any of them I’ve seen so far was a serious challenge for A Separation, this film is it. Writer-director Philippe Falardeau’s adaptation of Évelyne de la Chenelière’s touching story becomes a powerful film about people and communities putting themselves together after tragedy.
Halfway through the year at a primary school in Montreal, one of the teachers commits suicide, hanging herself one evening in her classroom. Soon afterwards, Bachir Lazhar (Fellag) presents his CV to the principal, Mme. Vaillancourt (Danielle Proulx). He was a teacher for nineteen years in Algeria before emigrating to Québec; there are formalities, but the children do need a teacher, don’t they?
M. Lazhar finds himself in a very different school from the ones back in Algeria, and even from those in North America only a couple decades ago. The other men on the faculty describe it as a “feminocracy”, which is understandable since they consist of the gym teacher and the janitor. And it’s the sort of now-common environment which pathologizes boys; “violence” is rooted out at every turn, from rough schoolyard games like king of the hill to less-than-delicate student essays.
Bachir’s methods are a little old-school. He has the students arrange their desks in straight rows rather than the concentric arcs which were supposed to “promote group spirit”. He reads dictation from Balzac, focusing on the students’ mastery of French grammar rather than sharing personal stories. He does make a few attempts to adopt their style, but for the most part he retains his own style.
Which may be for the best. The school’s response to the tragedy is largely to paint over it and hope that a few class visits from the school psychologist keeps everyone calm. I’m sure they’d say that the children are their primary concern, but the kids are pointedly not allowed to express their own feelings about their teacher’s suicide for fear that the ideas might be “violent”; they are free to share their feelings, as long as they don’t feel angry.
This is most pointedly true for the two students who actually saw their teacher on that cold winter morning, Alice (Sophie Nélisse) and Simon (Émilien Néron). Their reactions are understandably the strongest, and Nélisse and Néron both play their parts impeccably. Not only do they connect with these strong emotions, but they manage to come off as actual kids, unlike so many we see in movies.
M. Lazhar is just what these kids and the school both need, and it might have something to do with his own past in Algeria. The African nation may be calmer than in years past, and it may not have been subject to as much chaos by the Arab Spring, but as Bachir himself notes, “nothing is ever really normal in Algeria.”
Bachir is a man of contradictions, and Fellag plays him perfectly. He is equally warm and distant, strong and fragile. He has it in himself to console the most distraught child, and yet he could do with some consolation himself. Monsieur Lazhar is the role model we all wish we could have had as middle schoolers, and the one we are called to be to those young people around us.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.