Wednesday, April 11, 2012
Set in francophone Montreal, which looks to be as much a city of immigrants as my own New York, Monsieur Lazhar is a delicately powerful reminder that you never know what kind of hard, hard story the person next to you in the street or on the train may be quietly coping with—especially if he or she is a refugee from a troubled country.
Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag), an Algerian with kind eyes and an anachronistically courtly manner, appears like Mary Poppins at a troubled grade school, brushing aside customary procedures and promising an instantaneous, irresistible solution to a critical problem: A bunch of children need the firm but sensitive guidance of an adult authority figure, whether they know it or not.
But the children in the class Monsieur Lazhar takes over have a much bigger problem than the Banks clan, who had nothing more serious than parental neglect to cope with. Actually, some of these kids have that problem too—Alice (Sophie Nélisse), the precocious little beauty who becomes her new teacher’s favorite, has an absent father and a commercial pilot mother who’s forever flying off for days at a time—but the real crisis, the thing that’s making Alice miss her mother more than usual, is the suicide of the teacher Monsieur Lazhar has replaced.
The well-meaning principal dispatches a psychologist to talk to the kids en masse, but she’s blind to their guilt and grief. So it’s up to Monsieur Lazhar—or Bachir, as the kids call him, since their maybe a little too anti-authoritarian school promotes the use of first names—to acknowledge the depth of their wounds and teach them how to heal themselves.
Seemingly tossed-off details like the big paper fish pasted to the back of Lazhar’s jacket in one scene, which he seems unaware of and which nobody else remarks on, mark the students’ growing fondness for their teacher, while equally telling little things like his refusal to be photographed hint at the secret that unfolds organically in the background.
Meanwhile, the journey teacher and students take toward one another follows a predictable and sentimental arc, probably explaining why this was Canada’s Oscar nominee for best foreign-language film. But it’s sentimental in a good way, with none of the mugging or bathetic self-pity of that other French-language film that swept this year’s awards.
Monsieur Lazhar earns the lump it leaves in your throat, building up to it with a deliberately paced, beautifully acted catalogue of small but crucial acts of kindness and compassion offered up in defiance of monstrous cruelty and violence.
Written for The L Magazine