It is Montreal in the winter. Children are playing outside their school in the slushy cold. Two little sixth graders befriend each other. Alice (Sophie Nélisse) reminds Simon (Émilien Néron) it’s his turn to get the milk. He dashes off, excited to be a helper. He gets to enter the school ahead of the others and pick up a case of milk for his classroom.
As he fumbles between his load and the classroom doorknob he sees his teacher hanging from the ceiling pipe. His eyes enlarge and he runs pell-mell for help.
This is the story about guilt, about death, about courage and about an educational system that in its efforts to become all the public demands, grows ironically impersonal and as cold as the shivering winter air in Canada.
Of course, the suicide looks bad. Ostensibly the school staff tries to shield the students from the incident. Their classroom is repainted and a psychologist is brought in to visit the children for an hour a day.
A new teacher is also hired – Monsieur Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag), an immigrant from Algeria who, unbeknownst to the school principal, is not a Canadian citizen.
This is my third report on films nominated for this year’s Oscar for the Best Foreign Language Film. Though it is a dark horse candidate and a surprise nomination, it far better than Belgium’s “Bullhead” and Israel’s “Footnote,” two other films in the running.
“Monsieur Lazhar” is very simply presented, taking place primarily in a school. Surprisingly this French screenplay was developed by a gifted director, Philippe Falardeau, from a one-character play titled “Bashir Lazhar” by Évelyne de la Chenelière. What a transformation.
I communicated with Jeanne Federovitch, a public school French teacher, on her impression of the film. I was upset about the seemingly strange behavior of the suicidal teacher. How could she appear so beloved by the students and yet hang herself during their recess when she knew they’d be coming back, see her – and then be forever traumatized?
Federovitch suggested that maybe this incident was a parable about despair and depression (a personal problem) affecting those that you love (the children). She noted the contrast with their new teacher whose traumatic recent past would shake any normal person to the brink. Yet even though Monsieur Lazhar has a horrific reason for despair and depression, he doesn’t let that affect those that he loves (again, the children). As a matter of fact, they are healing agents for him just as he is for them.
I had a philosophy professor, Charles Malik, who said that happiness is only found when you can truly fall on your knees and help others. This is Monsier Lazhar. He is the epitome of the actualized man who in the face of great personal grief rises up to inspirational strength.
In every way Falardeau brings this story by de la Chenelière to meaningful life. In interviews he tells about the extra time he gave the children in the cast, working to ensure that their work on set was fun. It pays off in precious acting by all of them.
He also hit the nail on the head with his portrayal of intimidating parents at a conference. When Monsieur Lazhar is kindly pointing out their daughter’s strengths they beam. When he gently worries about her more impertinent attitude they announce, “We want you to teach our child, not raise her.”
“Monsieur Lazhar” is a beautiful film that has taken the film industry by surprise with its popularity. The Oscar Academy is to be commended for noticing and rewarding such a work of sensitivity.
“Monsieur Lazhar” opens in select theaters April 13, 2012
and was featured at the 35th Annual Portland International Film Festival.
Director: Philippe Falardeau
Writer: Philippe Falardeau from screenplay written by Évelyne de la Chenelière
Stars: Mohamed Fellag, Sophie Nélisse, Émilien Néron, Danielle Proulx and Brigitte Poupart
Language: French (English Subtitles) | English | Arabic
Release Date: March 7 (Belgium)
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