Learning Life’s Lessons

French Canadian film ‘Monsieur Lazhar’ looks at a teacher with a hidden past

April 26, 2012

Émilien Néron and Sophie Nélisse play students coping with their teacher’s suicide.

When substitute teacher and Algerian refugee Bachir Lazhar arrives to teach in a Quebecois public school, he finds himself in an unfamiliar world. Philippe Falardeau, director of the new film “Monsieur Lazhar,” thinks American audiences might have a similar experience watching the French-language tale, which opens in D.C. Friday.

English-speaking audiences “will miss some nuances, some plays on words, some of the humor,” says Falardeau. “But for the main themes of the film, which are grief and immigration and the education system, I think it doesn’t matter.”

The story begins with tragedy: The children’s former teacher hangs herself, and her body is discovered by one of the students. Lazhar (played by Algerian comedian Fellag) has lost his family to terrorism in Algeria. He relates to the students’ pain and confusion, but their coping mechanisms are very different.

“I like the fact that the character is trying to deal with his own demons and his painful past, and one of the ways he does that is to not talk about himself, and not reveal himself to other people,” says Falardeau. “He is kind of like an angel. We see him a little bit at the immigration office and at his home, but we know nothing about his personal life, and I wanted to keep it that way. I thought it was interesting that the character would be so obsessed with making the children talk about their grieving, but not wanting to talk himself.”

That’s when language comes into play: Though Lazhar speaks French fluently (as well as Arabic, which gives him a special bond with one boy in the classroom), there are still language barriers between him and the students — one that’s most evident when the children are in their English class and Lazhar can barely follow along. Even French presents problems. “Even when he talks in French, his level of French is way over their heads,” says Falardeau.

Lazhar also uses rather antiquated methods of education: desks in straight rows instead of in team-building groups, and using Balzac for the kids’ lessons in dictation.

Beyond all that, though, there ultimately is a bond between them all. “He thinks he’s the right teacher for them at that particular time,” says Falardeau. “And also, unconsciously, he needs to be surrounded by children after losing his family.”

Knowing ‘You’

“Monsieur Lazhar” gave the translators plenty to do, including inventing a last name for a character. During one scene, Lazhar (Fellag, pictured) is gently mocked by another teacher for continually using the formal “vous” in French, instead of the informal “tu.” Since there is no English equivalent, the subtitles say that Lazhar insists on calling her “Miss Lajoie” instead of by her first name.

Landmark E Street Cinema, 555 11th St. NW; opens Fri., $8-$11; 202-783-9494. (Metro Center)
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Kristen Page-Kirby | April 26, 2012