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Film review: Monsieur Lazhar

  Monday 23rd April 2012

In Montreal, an elementary school is shaken after the abrupt death of a teacher. Simon (Émilien Néron), a year-six pupil, catches a glimpse of his teacher Martine’s body, hanging from a pipe inside a classroom.

Mohamed Fellag plays the titular hero in Monsieur Lazhar
Mohamed Fellag plays the titular hero in Monsieur Lazhar

The camera stays on the classroom door until other teachers prompt the pupils back outside. Too late, Alice, Simon’s friend, has already stolen a peek through the door seeing Martine’s body.

The pupils are distraught by the suicide and the principal (Danielle Proulx) is desperate to find a substitute. Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag) is a 55-year-old Algerian immigrant in need of a job. After reading about the suicide on the newspaper, he presents himself to the principal as a substitute teacher.

Bachir confirms having taught in elementary schools in Algiers for 19 years. He is polite, formal and soft-spoken. He takes over a class whose students are traumatised and easily wins their confidence and affection, proving himself a caring, dedicated teacher.

He teaches the fables of La Fontaine, and invites students to invent their own. His own invented story, which he reads aloud to his pupils, is about a chrysalis and a tree and addresses both Martine’s suicide and his own recent personal calamity, which he is barely able to talk about.

But the teacher, “Monsieur Lazhar,” isn’t exactly what he claims. In Algeria he was first a civil servant who later owned a restaurant but has never taught.

The film, which belongs to a tradition of movies about students and teachers, shows an incredible balance between adult and a child’s-eye view of education, teacher-student relations and peer-group interactions. Monsieur Lazhar stands out in this subject genre, portraying the intensity and the fragility of these classroom bonds.

It calls specifically into question modern rules, which forbid any physical contact between teachers and students, who in moment of crisis might need a simple hug to feel comforted and reassured.

Monsieur Lazhar, written and directed by Philippe Falardeau, is a French-Canadian film that was a nominee for this year’s foreign-language Oscar.

It is a sharply intelligent and deeply sad film about both teaching and collective grief. Its surface may be still and quiet, with cool colors, wintry landscapes, and a delicate piano score, but the emotions beneath run tumultuous and deep.

Sophie Nélisse (Alice) and Émilien Néron (Simon) are exceptional when they’re alone together. Few words and intense mutual looks show how these two are bound by the shared sight of their teacher’s suspended corpse.

Monsieur Lazhar – the character as well as the movie – offers no simple answers to the hard questions Martine’s death prompts: Why did a beloved young teacher kill herself where she knew her students would find her?

As in real life, the reasons why people commit suicide often remain unknown. This film is about the people left behind and how they cope with their feelings of grief, shock and loss.

Verdict: ••••

Monsieur Lazhar will be released on 4th May.

Annalisa Ratti

Watch the trailer for Monsieur Lazhar here

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