Monsieur Lazhar

Monsieur Lazhar (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★

It looks like any other Thursday in a Montreal elementary school. Just before the bell summons the children to go inside, Simon (Émilien Néron) collects a crateful of milk for his class. He is supposed to deliver it to his homeroom but the door happens to be locked. He finds this unusual so he peers inside and sees his teacher’s lifeless body hanging from the ceiling.

A week later, the principal (Danielle Proulx) still hasn’t found a replacement for Ms. Lachance. Hearing about the terrible the news, Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag), an Algerian immigrant with teaching experience of nineteen years, drops by and offers to take on the position.

Written and directed by Philippe Falardeau, “Monsieur Lazhar” is most impressive because of its ability to present the topic of grief and explore it with exacting honesty and without ostentatiousness simply designed to wring an emotion out of us.

Almost immediately, the film communicates that students laying eyes on or hearing about their dead teacher is not like seeing or hearing about a dead person on television or the movies. The psychic scar is lasting and has a feral bite because it has happened to someone they knew, interacted with on a daily basis, who offered them support, laughter, discipline, and a different kind of love that perhaps even parents were not able to provide.

The picture also functions on another level by making it apparent that Ms. Lachance’s death does not affect her students the same way. Some are more overt in their comparison between Ms. Lachance and Monsieur Lazhar’s methods of teaching. Naturally, there is some kind of resistance when it comes to the necessary changes that have to be implemented to facilitate the class’ recovery, but Falardeau has a knack for highlighting the experience, the in-the-moment reactions of every child who is willing to speak his or her mind, that not once does the material feel like an after school special.

Having an experience of working with kids, I appreciated that the film is able to distinguish between thought and thinking process. In comparison, thoughts are interesting most often on the surface level. A child’s thinking process, how they attempt to make sense of a nonsensical thing, like a suicide, on the other hand, provides a backbone and emotional center to the story. We want to hear these children speak, to express their confusion, to admit to their anger, and to question why.

It is interesting how the screenplay consistently respects how sensitive children really are to something they don’t quite understand, while at the same time respecting their intelligence by not having them all respond in a manner that most of us might expect.

Unfortunately, when the film steps outside the schoolyard, its power diminishes slightly. While it is necessary that we come to know Monsieur Lazhar outside of teaching, at times the strand about him seeking political asylum in Canada feels forced, his sad story another way for us to identify with him. Also, the possible romantic spark between he and a fellow teacher (Brigitte Poupart) lacks a parabola. It seems to start and end without an arc that feels right for them.

Nevertheless, “Monsieur Lazhar” remains an achievement that the writer-director should be proud of. Despite the fact that it tackles realities that may be difficult to swallow, it’s the kind of film that parents should see with their children because it is real and encourages healthy lines of discussion.

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