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The Quiet Power of “Monsieur Lazhar”

March 5, 2012

By John C.

Even as we reach the end of Monsieur Lazhar, we never know why an elementary teacher would hang herself in the classroom of a Montreal school “with her blue scarf from the big pipe on a Wednesday night,” as a student matter of factly explains.  There are so many things that can’t be explained in this quietly powerful and beautifully acted Canadian film, but at its heart is a story about embracing life.

Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at last week’s Oscars and up for nine Genies at the Canadian film awards happening in Toronto on Thursday night, Monsieur Lazhar is one of the finest Canadian movies in recent memory.  By nature of awards season this is considered a film of last year, but it was only released in Toronto theatres on January 27th and is among the best I have seen so far in 2012.  The film arrives on Blu-ray & DVD next Tuesday, from eOne Home Entertainment.

The emotionally fragile Simon (Émilien Néron) is the one who discovers their beloved grade six teacher hanging, on the afternoon that he is expected to bring a crate of milk into the classroom.  Simon’s best friend, Alice (Sophie Nélisse) follows him down the hall, and also has the misfortune of peering through that little window into the classroom.  Their friendship is tested as Alice finds herself resenting the rocky relationship that Simon had with his teacher, unfairly blaming him for her death.  At eleven, she is old enough to understand the effects of what happened, but still young enough to try and find a reason for what really is an unexplainable tragedy.  The fact that her mother is often absent doesn’t help.

A call is put out to hire a replacement, but no teachers want to step forward and take the job, even after the classroom has been redecorated and gets a fresh coat of paint.  Then Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag) replies to the newspaper ad.  An Algerian immigrant with a passion for teaching who is still recovering from the pain of his own past, he is determined to give the kids a brighter future.  At first, they object to his teaching style, which includes a dictation far beyond their level and the insistence to have them line up their desks.  But then the students start to blossom and he finds himself spending more time with another teacher, Claire (Brigitte Poupart).

But there are moments where we realize just how much the students are still affected by the death of their teacher, especially Alice and Simon.  Perhaps it is the school that doesn’t know how to deal with the mixed emotions of the kids.  There is no physical contact allowed between the teachers and students, not even a comforting hug when they break down in class.  The visiting social worker won’t even let him sit in when she goes to talk with the class, but Monsieur Lazhar is the one who is able to break the silences of death by allowing the kids to openly talk about their feelings.  “Everyone thinks we’re traumatized,” one of the students says to him.  “It’s the adults who are.”

Based on a stage play by Evelyne de la Cheneliére, the majority of the film takes place at the school, both in and out of the classroom.  The interactions between characters are so well written and engaging that we become involved in their stories and will find ourselves thinking about them long after the movie ends.  Mohamed Fellag is a revelation in the leading role, adding warmth and depth to the nuanced title character.  Émilien Néron and Sophie Nélisse are both excellent as the two young leads, with director Philippe Falardeau guiding them to performances of emotional complexity that are rarely seen by child actors.  The haunting piano score by Jean-Pascal Hamelin is beautifully minimalistic.

At a time when there are so many reports of students committing suicide, I always wonder what sort of effect this type of tragedy will have on the other kids in the class.  I expect that some would experience a mix of grief and guilt.  The idea that a teacher could take her own life in the midst of a classroom and leave her students to deal with the pain, is as heartbreaking as it is disturbing.  But Monsieur Lazhar is as much about death as it is about the pain of not knowing why something happened.  It’s more about the heartbreaking effects of not being able to say goodbye, than it is a movie about suicide.  The bittersweet final scene will leave the audience deeply moved, but in a way that reminds us to embrace life.

Sometimes it can be hardest to deal with loss when we don’t know why something happened, and it can be near impossible when we never got the chance to say goodbye.  But the caring teacher at the heart of Monsieur Lazhar, who arrives almost like a guardian angel in the wake of tragedy, teaches the kids of his classroom the importance of being alive amidst the sadness that life can bring.

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