When the 3 R’s Fail to Teach: ‘Monsieur Lazhar’
Writer-director’s Philippe Falardeau’s Monsieur Lazhar, the French-Canadian film that was a nominee for this year’s foreign language Oscar, belongs in the general category of teacher-student movies. But it’s not the usual uplifting tribute to the transformative power of education. It’s a thoughtful, sometimes painful examination of the possibilities and restrictions of the teacher-student relationship. The main character, Bachir Lazhar (the Algerian actor-writer Mohamed Fellag), who steps in to teach a Montreal Middle school class after their beloved teacher commits suicide, is no motivational activist, but a soft-spoken rather courtly chap, who has a problem adjusting to needs and expectations of today’s youngsters. He tries to get the kids to transcribe from Balzac, when they’re at the Jack London level; when a student acts up, he casually cuffs the side of his head.
Quickly, the dedicated, but exhausted principal (Danielle Proulx), cues Lazhar into the customs of contemporary education: “no touching under any circumstances.” Not even a congratulatory hug. And, above all, any mention of Martine, the dead teacher, is to be avoided, except during periodic visits from the overbearingly soothing school psychologist.
Of course, it takes more sugary reassurance to handle the children’s grief and confusion, and the classroom remains haunted by Martine’s suicide, who in an startling opening scene, is discovered hanging in the schoolroom by an already-disturbed boy named Simon (Emilien Neron) and another student Alice (Sophie Nelisse),who also saw the body, repeatedly brings up the teacher’s death in the classroom.
In one of several movie moments that catch the viewer off-guard Alice’s oral presentation for the class about her school starts out pleasantly until she starts talking about her dead teacher. In another, we discover Simon secretly carries a photo of Martine with him. Then, there’s Lazhar’s story: He’s mourning his own losses, in a private but no less painful way. He finally gives way to his grief and so will you. But when you leave the film you won’t feel down. If the movie has a message it’s this: That even life’s most searing wounds sometimes heal. #