Monday, February 20, 2012

Review: "Monsieur Lazhar"

For me, Canadian cinema lacks a true identity. Our only saving grace is Quebec, where directors like Xavier Dolan and Denis Villeneueve are cementing their status as internationally renowned directors. Dolan's 2009 film J'ai tué ma mère (I Killed My Mother) won three awards at Cannes and was Canada's entrant for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards. Last year, Villeneuve's Incendies was the frontrunner for Oscar glory before losing to Denmark's In A Better World. For the second consecutive year, a French-Canadian film is nominated for Oscar's Best Foreign Language Film. Monsieur Lazhar is the fourth feature film from Quebecois director Philippe Falardeau. It is a wonderfully acted and beautifully heartfelt film about a substitute teacher whose foreign approach to his students helps the children deal with the suicide of their former teacher. The film is based on a one-character play by Evelyne de la Chenelière. Monsieur Lazhar stars Mohamed Said Fellag (known simply as Fellag), an Algerian comedian and humorist. It is often the most comedic actors who excel in the most dramatic roles. As a teacher (a French teacher!) I found the film incredibly compelling. I also happened to see the film with three other educators. Monsieur Lazhar is about a group of grade six students (11-12 year olds), which is the same age as my own students. I found quite a lot of subtext within the film. Monsieur Lazhar is by no means a perfect film. It is profoundly emotional and juxtaposes two story lines with only a few nagging issues, but it is this same emotional complexity that ultimately undermines the film's conclusion.

Taking place at a Montreal elementary school, Bachir Lazhar (Fellag) is quickly hired to take over teaching duties after a teacher hangs herself. The students loved their teacher, but it was Simon (Emilien Néron) who happened to see Martine's body hanging from the rafters. Alice (Sophie Nélisse) is unable to forgive Simon for mistreating Martine, believing that Simon was responsible for Martine's mental fragility. Bachir convinces the principal, Madame Vaillancourt (Danielle Proulx), to hire him even though he has not been hired by the school board. He tells the principal that he was a college-level teacher in Algeria, even though he is unable to provide her with proof. The truth is that Bachir is a refugee seeking political asylum in Canada after his family was killed in an arson attack. At school, Monsieur Lazhar's teaching techniques do not go over well. He tries using Balzac for dictations and stresses the important of grammar. One child is removed from his class by her parents and another father tells him that it is not his responsibility to raise his child. Mme. Vaillancourt also believes that the students have no need to discuss their teacher's suicide with him and wants to leave that to the board psychologist. Bachir learns a great deal from his students but he divulges very little about himself. A colleague, Claire (Brigitte Lajoie), believes that Bachir's class would benefit from learning about his past.

It is obvious why Monsieur Lazhar won the Best Canadian Feature Film award at the Toronto International Film Festival. It is an emotionally powerful film that tugs at your heartstrings without trying to be a tearjerker. The relationship between Bachir and his students is paced with honesty, as I can attest from personal experiences. The students were cast so expertly that I can hardly pick my favourite. Simon, Alice, Abdelmalek (Seddik Benslimane), Marie-Frédérique (Marie-Eve Beauregard) and Victor (Vincent Millard) are so incredibly innocent and sweet. The only thing I would change about the film is its ending. It is an emotional roller coaster in the last ten minutes and it is difficult to pay attention to the words being said while watching the disconnected images on screen. Monsieur Lazhar deserves its place amongst the best Canadian films of 2011 (more emotionally satisfying than Café de Flore), but with Iran's A Separation the expected winner, Canada will have to wait for an Oscar-winning companion to 2003's Les invasions barbares.

My rating: 3.5 stars out of 4.


  1. I'm disgusted by the opening of this post. We officially need to take you to KingCan :(

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