Monsieur Lazhar (2011) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4) : A substitute teacher in charge of the class in grief

The terrible incident suddenly happens in one Canadian elementary school during the mundane but shattering opening sequence of “Monsieur Lazhar.” While the students enjoy the free time outside the building, one of the schoolteachers is found dead, hanging herself up in her classroom. The other teachers quickly cover this tragedy from the kids as soon as they come to know what happens, but it leaves her students in shock and grief as a consequence even after some time has passed and the classroom has been repainted.

When the principal, Mademoiselle Vaillancourt(Brigitte Poupart), needs a substitute teacher for the deceased teacher’s class, one man appears in front of her out of nowhere. He is an Algerian immigrant named Bachir Lazhar(Mohamed Fellag, who is credited as Fellag in the film), and he is willing to work as a substitute teacher. According to him, he was an elementary school teacher for 19 years in his country he has recently left from.

Lazhar is a gentle, likable man, so he is instantly hired by Mme. Vaillancourt, and soon he meets the kids in the class assigned to him. The start is a little rocky at first because he sets his standard a little too high for his young students(he uses Balzac’s novel for the dictation test) and there is the cultural gap between them. But, after some few quick adjustments, everything goes pretty smoothly as before in the class; the students like him, and so do the other teachers in the school.

However, Lazhar discerns that there remain unresolved emotional matters beneath his class. He thinks his students should be more opened about how they feel about that incident. Although they get the periodic counseling sessions with a child psychiatrist, he believes he and other teachers should be more active about his students’ problem. Most of the other teachers, including Mme. Vaillancourt, understand his point, but they are reluctant or object to Lazhar, because the rules like the zero-tolerance-for-touching policy have confined their roles so much that dealing with their students is like, as one teacher in the movie says, handling radioactive waste.

The director Philippe Falardeau, who also adapted Evelyne de la Cheneliere’s one-man play for his movie, does a good job of setting the daily rhythm and atmosphere of the school life on the screen for his story. His story is not locked in the predictable conventional plot we can expect from the movies about teacher or teaching, so it moves with its free will around its hero and the other characters surrounding them while establishing them as the real people with the serious matters to deal with. The movie does not feel the need to push them into the plot, and it calmly observes their interactions with cool restraint while never overplaying its deep emotions beneath the surface. We learn a lot about them while watching them even though they do not tell about themselves or their backgrounds much.

One small but important fact about Lazhar provides a little tension to the story. It is revealed early in the film that he was not a teacher as he said. As the matter of fact, he has not even been accepted by the Canada Government yet because he is currently under the examination for deciding whether he can be judged as a political refuge seeking asylum.

The movie suggests that Lazhar may understand what some of his students are struggling through as a person still in his personal grief, but it does not choose an easy way of handling this connection between M. Lazhar and the students, and neither does Mohamed Fellag, who gives a quiet honest performance as a humble decent man with lots of empathy. Though he is not really a teacher(but his deceased wife was), Lazhar has the right stuff to be a good teacher. He cares about the students, and he likes to be with them while helping them. Maybe he lacks some professional knowledge for teaching a class, but he can manage the difficult situations in his classroom tactfully with common sense. What he says to his students at one fragile moment is the universal truth that can applied to any school on the earth; “A classroom is a home for.. it’s a place of friendship, of work, and of courtesy. A place full of life – where you devote your life”

It should be mentioned that the kids in the movies give the believable performance as a group under Falardeau’s direction. Even you do not know all of their names, each of them is a distinctive part of the class, and, how they generate the mild but busy dynamics together under the cool gaze of the camera in their classroom is nothing less than natural.

Two young performers are especially notable as the crucial supporting characters in the story. Sophie Nélisse is a smart little girl more outspoken about the incident affecting her and others than her classmates. She is curious about her substitute teacher who comes from the other country, and she comes to like him probably more than anyone else. She becomes his close ally when he attempts to deal with the grief problem of the class, and Nélisse and Émilien Néron, who is also good as an anguished boy hurt a lot by the incident and the following guilt resulting from it, have a calm but intense scene with quiet emotional power.

“Monsieur Lazhar”, which won Six Genie awards(it’s Canadian Oscar) including Best Picture and was recently nominated for Best Foreign Film Oscar early in this year, is a touching drama whose emotions slowly and powerfully resonate after it is over. Teaching is a lot more than passing the knowledge to the students and, in its simple but subtle storytelling, the movie shows us how important the connection between the teacher and the students is in that process. The last scene is particularly moving though the camera looks at the characters from the distance. Sometimes, the teacher also gets something valuable from the students in the class.

Sidenote: The movie will be shown on May 1st and 3rd at 2012 Jeonju International Film Festival in my hometown. Don’t miss the chance if you have the time to go there.

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