Neely Swanson

“Monsieur Lazhar”: a gentleman and a scholar [MOVIE REVIEW]

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Monsieur Lazhar

Beloved Algerian actor Fallag stars as . Photo courtesy of Music Box Films

A much-loved teacher at a Montreal middle school has hung herself in her classroom leaving nothing but questions and a hole in the heart of her young students, especially Simon, who discovered her, and Alice who ventured to look. In need of emotional guidance and a new teacher, Bashir Lazhar appears, seemingly out of nowhere, announcing that he knows there is a staff opening and that he is well-qualified to fill it. Claiming to have been a teacher for 20 years in Algeria and a permanent Canadian resident, he leaves his CV with Mrs. Vaillancourt, the principal, and awaits her call – which comes forthwith.

Expecting more from his students than they are presently prepared to give, both sides of the equation begin the slow adjustment process that will result in enormous emotional and academic growth. But despite the so-called new approach to education and counseling, the administration is rigid in their belief that the children are doing just fine after the trauma of their teacher’s death. Lazhar, however, witnessing how the students act out, retreat into solitude or clamor for attention, knows full well that they are not alright. They have feelings to express despite the school’s and their parent’s inability or unwillingness to see. Lazhar also knows first hand the lasting effect of tragedy because he is not exactly what he claims to be, but instead is an Algerian citizen applying for political asylum following the tragic deaths of his wife and children. He has more in common with the students than he reveals.

“Monsieur Lazhar” is a complex amalgam of many inter-related themes. On the one hand this is a look within a school system that has a mandated “no touching” rule, which besides the physical meaning brings on an emotional one as well. These are students in desperate need of comfort, solicitation, guidance and holding. Certainly such rules were put into place to eliminate corporal punishment, but the after effect is that teachers are no longer allowed to hold hands, hug, or give any other positive physical reinforcement. Leave the parenting to the parents is the cry, but what of the parents who refuse to parent? Tony Kaye’s recent film “Detachment” attempted to cover similar ground but wholly ineffectively. Director Philippe Falardeau approaches the same issues through engagement – the effects on the students and their teachers.

One of the beauties of “Monsieur Lazhar” is watching the blossoming of both the students and the teacher as they interact and come to understand one another. Both sides contribute equally to this growth as Lazhar must adapt to a new educational system without losing his values and his ability to affect the students. The students, in turn, begin to thrive in an environment that is more traditional, adding structure to their lives and creativity to their thinking.

“Monsieur Lazhar” is equal parts tragedy and love story, but more importantly it is about mourning, although Falardeau’s denies this. For the children and Lazhar, there can be no forward progress in life without the acknowledgment of what they have experienced. Perhaps because it’s too difficult to deal with or perhaps it’s the arrogance of the so-called professionals at the school, but these children, and particularly Simon and Alice, both of whom find themselves alone too often, think of nothing but their teacher’s death and their mistaken idea that somehow they were responsible for her act.

The acting is what used to be called naturalistic and what I call flat out terrific. From Danielle Proulx as the sympathetic principal who goes out on a limb only to have it cut off and Brigitte Poupart as a teacher exuding warmth who has made her peace with a system that is stultifying, the truisms of modern education are portrayed realistically in their hands. But the star of this film in every way, shape and form is an Algerian actor, well known in France and North Africa but little known elsewhere, named Fellag. With a roadmap of a face, large dark eyes and a too large nose, he is a cartoon of a man. It is easy to see the trouble behind those eyes, but at the same time those same eyes are able to bring lightness and humor to the lives of the children in his class. His character has come to that school to touch what is left of his dead wife, the true teacher. Fellag’s soft, fluid speech is a comfort to everyone around him except himself. His scene in the immigration office as he fights for political asylum against an offensive petty bureaucrat who denigrates his claim illuminates the anger and self loathing within him. Fellag makes you feel the pain of a man who feels guilty for being alive when those he loved are dead.

The children playing Alice and the wounded Simon are extraordinary. Sophie Nélisse (Alice) is a dead ringer for a pre-adolescent Drew Barrymore with the hope and love and depth conveyed in those enormous eyes. Nélisse reminds us of the wonderment of youth as well as its fragility. It is impossible not to get lost within her and share her agonies and her triumphs, as small as they may be. Emilien Néron as Simon combines the bravado of the small and wounded. He is, at once, a fun loving and loyal friend to his schoolmates as well as a cornered wild dog lashing out at those same friends for reasons known only to him. Néron’s slitted eyes and trembling mouth are warning signs missed by everyone but Lazhar. The ability to go from adorable to caged anger is challenging to most adult actors, but Néron is already a master at the age of 13.

Slowly enveloping you in its pace, this is a film you never want to end. Sympathy turns to empathy and in turn becomes personal. This Academy Award nominated film from Canada is not to be missed.

Opens Friday April 13 at the Landmark Theatre.

Neely also writes a blog about writers in television and film at http://www.nomeanerplace.com

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