Yet another cinematic reason to be proud to be Canadian…
Recently, I’ve been blown away by a streak of films coming out of Quebec, including Café de Flore (which I reviewed here) and Incendies. Naturally, I had very high hopes for Philippe Falardeau’s Monsieur Lazhar. This film was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars, and won Best Canadian Feature Film at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival. To top it off, Monsieur Lazhar took home no less than 6 Genie Awards this week, including Best Film, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actress. Needless to say, my expectations were quite high.
The film takes place in current day Montreal, and centres on Algerian-born Bashir Lazhar (Algerian comedian and writer, Mohamed Fellag), who has recently immigrated to Canada. Having heard about a teaching position at a local elementary school, Lazhar applies for the job by showing up at the principal’s office, sans rendezvous, with CV in hand. The previous teacher, Lazhar learns, hung herself in the classroom while her students were outside at recess. Two unfortunate students in particular, Simon (Émilien Néron) and Alice (Sophie Nélisse) were among the first to discover her body.
Desperate for a replacement, the school sets Lazhar to work tout de suite. Lazhar immediately exudes the kind of confidence and enthusiasm that only an elementary school teacher can muster, especially in such circumstances. Despite the change in teaching style – Lazhar insists that the students begin studying Balzac and Moliére – the students quickly take to “Monsieur Bashir.” It soon becomes evident, however, that they have been deeply and perhaps irreversibly affected by the suicide of their former teacher. Wanting to reach out to the students, but under strict orders by the school’s administration to follow certain protocol, Lazhar struggles to help his students come to terms with what’s happened.
It turns out, however, that Lazhar is also dealing with his own personal tragedy. We learn that he has fled to Canada seeking refugee status, and is currently fighting to stay in the country. Through brief interactions with lawyers and immigration officials, Lazhar’s painful past is revealed, piece by piece. Nonetheless, it is the students and their struggle that remains Lazhar’s priority; it is not only his tragic past, but also his concern for his students that motivate his longing to remain in Canada.
One student in particular, Alice, touches Lazhar with her maturity and wisdom. Feeling neglected by her mother, whose work often takes her away from Montreal, Alice finds herself in need of an emotional outlet. By presenting her thoughts on her teacher’s suicide in a classroom assignment, Alice inspires Lazhar to approach the school’s administration, in the hopes that they will encourage an atmosphere of open communication regarding the suicide. At this point, however, Lazhar begins to learn about the problems and complexities of school life, some of which may have led to the suicide in the first place.
The beautiful thing about Monsieur Lazhar is its realism. The storyline is simple, and what one may take to be key plotline events – i.e., certain events leading up to the suicide, or events in Lazhar’s past – remain underplayed and uncertain. The characters are believable and familiar, particularly for those of us with friends who are teachers – certainly a special and distinct kind of person. Lazhar’s character, and his devotion to his students, is utterly heartwarming. When he smiles, you find yourself smiling along with him, and when he cries, you sincerely share in his grief.
Perhaps even more impressive is the incredible acting on the part of Lazhar’s students. Nélisse and Néron beautifully portray both innocence and intensity, displaying skills that one rarely finds even in the most seasoned of Hollywood actors. Fittingly, it was Nélisse who took home the award for Best Supporting Actress at this week’s Genie Awards. Although all of the students in the film were played by impressive actors, these two in particular flourished in the limelight.
Monsieur Lazhar, being so true to life, manages inevitably to touch on some rather controversial issues without even trying. For example, the question of boundaries with regards to the teacher-student relationship – i.e., how much physical and emotional involvement is inappropriate? – is explicitly discussed at times, illustrating some of the pressures of life as a teacher in the twenty-first century. Sensitive questions about immigration and asylum-seeking policies are also hinted at through Lazhar’s personal battle to remain in Canada and out of Algeria, where, as he says, “rien n’est tout à fait normal” [“nothing is ever quite normal”].
Monsieur Lazhar is an excellent film that is thoroughly deserving of the success it’s garnered. While I recommend this film most highly to those among us who happen to be pedagogically-endowed (i.e., teachers), this film has certain elements that will appeal to just about anyone.
My Rating: 8.5/10