This year’s Oscar-nominated Monsieur Lazhar is a film that some of our own politicians, teachers and school administrators could definitely benefit from seeing. That it is Canadian and spoken mostly in French does little to stifle a relevance sure to span education systems far and wide.
A teacher’s suicide at a Montreal elementary school is the film’s opening statement, providing writer-director Philippe Falardeau with the necessary berth to discuss a wide array of subjects, from death, to war, parenting and education to name but a few. As we observe how this shocking act affects a class of children, the school’s staff, and especially their new teacher Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Said Fellag), Falardeau’s film most prominently notes the pervasive nature of death, how it hovers like a spectre. It is a force which can render even the most sensible of us entirely irrational, scared of even discussing it, and certainly, it is something which leaves all of us – both adults and kids – immensely vulnerable.
Lahzar, however, seems like he might be different, possessing a sort of mystical, irresistible charisma which promptly charms the cynical principal, and wins the class over quickly enough. While the exchanges with his pupils – superbly acted as they are – are often charming and cute, the film is ultimately, true to its title, about Lazhar rather than them, and how he deals with his own grim demons. We see that grief is not so much an age-related question, and that when faced with mortality, it doesn’t matter how old we are; we will likely defer to either acting out or internalising. Lazhar, like most of the children, does not like talking about his tragedies, while conversely, there is the inevitable problem child, Simon (Émilien Néron), who feels personal involvement for his teacher’s demise, and is a difficult student as a result.
While this issue is plenty enough for a film to examine, by instead choosing to tackle a variety of subjects, Falardeau ensures that he doesn’t stew himself in a morbid misery porn schematic. The over-administrated school system, which stifles everyone and most importantly, the very notion of leaning, is ably assaulted. The bureaucrats dismiss open dialogues about the teacher’s suicide, and instead want all discussion to occur behind closed doors, homogenised into acceptable prose by the state-approved psychologists.
Though Monsieur Lazhar deals with issues of grand emotional heft, it aims to be polemical only so much; it ultimately has the most humanist concerns at heart. While Falardeau’s script leaps off to examine the political state of Algeria, this is only because it is central to Lazhar’s own internal anguish; all is done in the service of the characters, rather than to stand on a soap box or bang a drum. Never is its hand overplayed; the discussion is understated yet confrontational enough that the emotional beats hit home hard. That it manages to make a valid political point about the sterile, hyper-politically correct education system – which seems to be occurring increasingly the world over – while in the stead of crafting a fine character study is just icing on the cake.
Lighter elements are no less punchy, though; a potential romance between Lazhar and a kind drama teacher is charming and endearingly, sometimes hilariously awkward. Further still, while the final few scenes are unquestionably wrenching – yet completely cathartic – it is the film’s peculiar engagement with this difficult subject, firmly rooted in honesty, which prevents it from ever feeling too depressing or downcast. The film takes a desperate act and manages to find a moving, even sweet way of wringing hope out of its wake, while still concisely making the points that it wants to.
Fellag delivers a riveting performance as the quietly courageous school teacher, but it is the deeply affecting work from Sophie Nélisse and Émilien Néron – as troubled kids Alice and Simon – that really gives this drama its wings. Broaching tough material in a tactful, sensitive manner, Monsieur Lazhar is a potent, stirring gem of Canadian cinema.
Monsieur Lazhar is on a limited UK cinema release right now.