Monsieur Lazhar – Movie Review

One of the most touching films of the year. A brilliant tragedy that transcends boundaries of age, country, race, religion and gender.

Filmmaker Philippe Falardeau scored big with his emerging works “It’s Not Me, I Swear!” and “Left Hand Side of the Fridge.” Nominated for Best Foreign Language film at the 2012 Oscars, Monsieur Lazhar is an adaptation of Évelyne de la Chenelière’s stage play, and is produced by Luc Déry and Kim McCraw, the team responsible for the Oscar-nominated “Incendies.”

Falardeau’s current film, “Monsieur Lazhar” features Mohamed Fellag playing Bachir Lazhar, an Algerian immigrant who has falsified his credentials to get a job, any job, in Canada. Fellag was born and raised in Algeria, moving to Paris during the Algerian Civil War.

As the film opens, sixth grade pupils, Simon (Émilien Néron), and his friend, Alice (Sophie Nélisse) discover their beloved teacher Martine Lachance has committed suicide. As is the case with many children caught in such circumstances, Simon blames himself for her death. Although Simon has acted up in class, there are suggestions that Martine was at odds with the establishment and this was the reason for her despondence.

Lazhar stumbles onto the traumatized school still reeling from the horrific suicide and recognizes kindred spirits in need. Desperate for a replacement at a time and place where it seems no one is ready to step up, the harried administrator hires the humble Lazhar without question.

As Bachir Lazhar’s own tragic background is revealed, we learn that he has lost his wife and only child in a fire. As he enters the school, with its terrible secret, he carries a secret of his own. The secret of Lazhar’s overbearing grief resonates with the school’s grief. The children seem to sense this and Bachir effortlessly melds with them, while becoming more and more at odds with the adults.

The story commands the self-examination of the Canadian upper-middle class. The average upwardly mobile white-collar worker bees are so involved in their own status and wealth accumulation that they are not seeing the elephant in the room. Although the back-story is left fuzzy, Martine is seen as a sacrifice and a call for help. Lazhar is dropped onto the doorstep seemingly as a gift from above, in a time of great need.

The question that remains at the end of the film is whether the people were able to see and understand the help they were given. The new teacher is one of the children, although he is gifted and cursed with his prior experiences in 90’s Algeria and the fierce and brutal war of independence there. There is the ongoing message that the people of the nation, and perhaps the people of the world, have not learned from that terrible lesson.

One of the reasons the professional parents of the schoolchildren cannot, or will not, understand Lazhar, is that they are racist. Their racism is couched in their presumed superior education and their knowledge of Western culture. The point of the film is that this increasingly inbred point of view will be the downfall of France, and perhaps the world, if it continues to collapse people’s perspective.

Another reason for the desperation of the school community is that the taboo of death stalks their every move. The naïve parents want to sweep the entire affair under the rug. Lazhar knows this will not work but he is ill equipped to confront the powerful, established ruling class with the truth. In the end, all concerned are beginning to see that something is going terribly wrong with the way we look at ourselves and way we look at death. Is there any chance of change?

Lazhar is a great film, on several levels. Several themes will start discussions wherever the film is watched. The theme of accepting and moving past guilt may be secondary compared to the outright coarseness and cruelty of adults compared to children.

The historical blood feud over Algerian Independence lurks in the background, as does the issue of female empowerment and religious/political freedom in the Muslim world. In any event, the film is a celebration of acceptance, forgiveness and understanding. One only hopes the right people are watching.

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Directed and Written by: Philippe Falardeau
Starring: Mohamed Fellag, Sophie Nélisse and Émilien Néron
Release Date: April 13, 2012
MPAA: Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, a disturbing image and brief language
Running Time: 94 Minutes
Country: Canada
Language: French (English Subtitles) / English / Arabic Color: Color