[Review] – Monsieur Lazhar

1 May

Title: Monsieur Lazhar
Year: 2012
Director: Philippe Falardeau
Writer: Philippe Falardeau
Starring: Mohamed Fellag, Sophie Nélisse, Émilien Néron, Danielle Proulx, Brigitte Poupart, Jules Philip
MPAA Rating: PG-13, mature thematic material, a disturbing image and brief language
Runtime: 94 min
IMDb Rating: 7.6
Rotten Tomatoes: 95%
Metacritic: 82

Films about the impact that teachers can have on their students abound (John Keating immediately popped into your mind, right?). And Monsieur Lazhar, last year’s Best Foreign Language Oscar nominee from Canada, is about a teacher. It’s kind of instinctive when you have a film about a teacher that you’ll want that teacher to be super inspiring and to make you leave the theater feeling sort of uplifted, just like it’s instinctive when you’re in school and you want your teachers to inspire you.

The titular character in Monsieur Lazhar is an Algerian immigrant living in Montreal who becomes a substitute teacher at a middle school for a class who’s beloved teacher committed suicide by hanging herself in her classroom, where she was found dead by one of her students, and seen by another before the staff and police took control of the situation. You might assume, correctly, that this film will be about how Bachir Lazhar takes charge of a class that’s been through quite a lot. It also is, however, about how he deals with some demons of his own that come from his own past in Algeria and his status as an immigrant. He will help them deal with their grief, and vice versa.

This truly is a great little film. I loved to see how the French-Canadian public school system was depicted, and how we got to know these students at the same time as Monsieur Lazhar does as the film goes along, and to see how they, as well as some of his new colleagues, push him out of his shell to finally deal with quite a lot of stuff from his past. He, at the same time, must battle in some ways the school’s extremely strict system that doesn’t really allow for teachers to be all that inspirational because of all the rules that are set about what they can say to students and how they can interact with them.

It’s terrific to see how he starts getting to know these kids, how he has to rise above a very clear cultural gap while they are undergoing a healing process, all the while they’re not aware about his past, about his own healing process, and about the many things that could go wrong concerning his status as an immigrant. I’ll try not to spoil anything about Lazhar’s personal part in Algeria, but it’s awesome how we start learning about it little by little and how it not only informs us about his personal life and shines a light on this character, but how it also gives a new sense to what his new students are going through. Especially the one who found his teacher’s body, and the other one who also saw it hanging from their own classroom where they’re now sitting with Monsieur Lazhar.

There’s something preventing me from really loving this film even further, though. I mean I was super compelled by it and I had a lot of fun watching it, and at just ninety-four minutes long it’s a slim film that goes by super fast, but something about it kept reminding me that this was a movie I was watching, and I just wasn’t drawn into it so much as an original, fully-dimensional story, even if I really was as a great form of entertainment.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I’m saying that Lazhar isn’t a three-dimensional character or that he’s easy to read; because that’s not the case here. I just meant that I thought this was all a bit too cleanly-polished for my taste. But as a character, I really liked this one. You see, there is a lot of stuff that Monsieur Lazhar doesn’t answer; we never get explanations for the motivations of our lead character, and even once we know his back story there are still many questions without answers, and that’s good. Better still is the performance by Mohamed Fellag as the titular character, because even when this character feels like he should be a very nuanced and restrained kind of person, Mr. Fellag’s own personality (he’s a comedian) comes through and he just inserts so much charm into every scene that he draws you in even further into this story.

This lightness that’s brought by Mr. Fellag’s performance, which is also brilliantly subtle, obviously helps the darker undertones of the movie be much easier to digest. The film starts with a very bleak situation, but when this character is brought forth it all starts to, slowly, brighten up, just like the seasons change from winter to summer. It never uses the horrible situation from which it stems to become a preachy and heavy-handed hugely dramatic affair, but instead it just uses it to present us with some situations and a number of characters which we will then begin to get to know and explore, but we’ll do so within a rather cheerful sort of comedy that absolutely blows off whatever conventions come with the classroom genre.

Monsieur Lazhar is one of those small films that should most definitely get your attention. From the uniformly great cast, to the little warm-hearted and touching moments that come out of it, to how it manages to engage you in the stories of these kids and of this man that comes upon them. I love films that are so perceptive that even if they are dealing with very culturally specific subject, as are the ones of race and education that are touted in this film, they manage to transcend those limitations and make this one work at more universal level. This one deserves to be seen.

Grade: A-

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2 Responses to “[Review] – Monsieur Lazhar”

  1. JG June 2, 2012 at 8:48 am #

    It was a Canadian film not French.

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