Monsieur Lazhar

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 04/05/12 14:36:12

"Take a lesson from this teacher movie."
5 stars (Awesome)

"Monsieur Lazhar", Canada/Quebec's nominee for best foreign language feature at the recent Oscars, is a quite remarkable piece of work, and all the more so for how quietly and efficiently it goes about its business. It is amazingly low-key for a movie that opens on a moment of genuine horror and could easily become schmaltzy and simple, but no less powerful for it.

At an average-looking primary school in Montreal, a popular teacher has just died in the worst possible way, and Mme. Vaillancourt (Danielle Proulx), the principal, is having some difficulty finding a long-term replacement when Bachir Lazhar walks into her office and volunteers his services. The middle-aged Algerian immigrant soon finds that the classroom is different in Quebec than back home, and finds himself especially concerned with two students who are most directly affected by their teacher's death than others: Alice (Sophie Nélisse), a bright girl whose airline-pilot mother (Evelyne de la Chenelière) is frequently absent, and her best friend Simon (Émilien Néron) - or, at least, the 11-year-olds were best friends before. And even as he becomes closer with his colleagues, they don't realize that his immigration status is not quite as settled as he let on.

One amazing thing about Monsieur Lazhar is how instantly we know the title character. The camera pans from Proulx to Fellag and the audience likes him immediately; even before he says a word, his body language is striking the right balance of relaxed self-confidence and old-world formality. When he speaks, it is with the propriety of a man who understands what sort of responsibility he has taken on but with the humanity of a person with great capacity for cheer and joy. There are several related themes to this movie, but the one most embodied in Fellag's performance is how there are, amid the terrible things that happen in the world, new things to delight in, and you survive the former by making room for the latter. Bachir is so good at it that it should almost be surprising when something like real despair comes, but Fellag has shown just enough hints of what the character has been through that the audience finds itself admiring his quiet strength.

The entire cast is strong, especially the kids; they are some of the most naturalistic performances one will see from children this young in a movie so tightly scripted. Sophie Nélisse is especially good as Alice, getting across that this little girl is smart and vulnerable without harping on it. As great as her scenes with Fellag and Néron are, my favorite moment with her is a wordless bit where she's tremendously sad but too mature and aware of it to cry, but her confusion over how to express herself has her grabbing her mother and leaning her head in. It's a thing kids do but which is hard for a kid to get so right when acting, and that's how good the young cast tends to be across the board. Émilien Néron is also terrific as Simon; he's got a lot of history to imply and he has to crack by degrees. It's stuff that's tough enough for an older performer, but he handles the load impressively well.

For a film that is told in a very straightforward manner, the movie is thematically rich. There's not a moment that isn't used to dual purpose, although many of these themes are connected in a natural enough way that this never seems forced. Bureaucracy versus common sense is a large one; Bachir finds himself stymied by rigidity both as a teacher and as an immigrant, and a character mostly used for comic relief gets to have a pointed comment about how the too-restrictive rules make him a joke. What really struck me was how much it was about respecting kids. Bachir reads to his students from Balzac, and engages them directly about the death of their former teacher. Kids can be surprisingly capable, and it's amazing how well this movie portrays that. This plays in with how schools downplay the less pleasant aspects of world history, which ties in to how they devalue the concept of violence, which...

Philippe Falardeau's script is tight, and it's interesting that it's an adaptation of a one-man show, but is not chock full of monologues or description. Falardeau lets the audience watch rather than listen, and doesn't do too much in the way of trickery when presenting the story. The presentation is straightforward, so that even as he says a great deal, he doesn't come close to overwhelming the audience.

That's a genuinely impressive achievement. It would be easy for "Monsieur Lazhar" to shout what it wanted to say, but it gets its points across much better by simply presenting itself to the audience and trusting them to understand.

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