Too many films about school insist on showing the teaching and learning enterprise at its worst. Students are portrayed as at best troubled and often just rotten, teachers are stupid or mean; parents are arrogant or absent. “Monsieur Lazhar” doesn’t, and that is only part of what distinguishes this moving, intelligent Canadian film, which opens in the Washington D.C. region on Friday.
The film, a 2012 Academy Award finalist for Best Foreign Language Film adapted from a one-character play, tells the story of an Algerian immigrant in Montreal who takes over an elementary school class after the students’ popular teacher commits suicde.
Over the course of the quietly powerful movie, the audience learns that the new teacher, Bachir Lazhar, has suffered a tragedy of his own, and it watches as the adult and the students over whom he takes charge, go through a healing process separately and together. From the very first day it is clear that the new teacher, who is seeking political asylum in Canada, comes from another culture, nationally and academically, yet those differences are transcended by common human sensitivities and emotions.
Yet this is not merely a story about an inspirational teacher who helps students deal with their grief. Director Philippe Falardeau treats the school, the setting for the drama, as a living organism where the small and large tragedies and joys, friendships and rivalries, teaching and learning, unfold every day. The first emotional scene, when a boy spots his teacher dead in a classroom as he stands in the corridor, takes place in the belly of the school, and the camera stays there as the boy tries to find help and grief spreads like a virus.
“Anything can happen at a school, and it does,” said Falardeau in an interview. “Schools are incubators of life.”
This is a lesson other artists and policymakers — who keep trying to take the wonder out of learning and turn schools in test-prep factories — might do well to take.
Each character — adults and kids alike — has integrity, and Falardeau presents the students as smart, complicated people. There isn’t a bad performance in the cast. The title character is convincingly played by Mohamed Fellag, an actor and comic who left his native Algeria for political reasons.
For those who don’t understand French, the English subtitles are elegant and to the point.
Falardeau deals convincingly with several taboos in schools everywhere that he believes obstruct relationships between adults and young people. There is a subplot about a teacher touching a student, though only in a comforting rather than a sexual way, yet still getting in trouble for it.
“You can understand why there are rules but we’ve gone too far with this,” he said. Falardeau noted that when he was doing research for the film, he would stop at school yards just to watch children interact on the playground, but only stayed for a few minutes for fear he would be questioned by police about his intentions.
There is, too, a very real tension shown in the way the adults in the school building try to deal with the teacher’s suicide in the presence of the children. It suggests how much adults underestimate the ability of young people to deal with life’s difficulties.
“I know I wanted to be treated like a mature person when I was a kid,” Falardeau said, and that’s what drove his view of the students in the film..
The first question Falardeau said he asked himself as he was creating the first emotional moment of his story — when the fate of the class teacher is discovered — was, “Is this believable?”
While there are some twists that may some unusual — I won’t give away everything — teachers have screened “Monsieur Lazhar” and told Falardeau that he succeeded beautifully. I think he did.
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