May 1, 2012 Volume 26, Number 05
Monsieur Lazhar a lesson in fine Canadian film
By Bruce Soderholm | ChristianWeek Columnist
Monsieur Lazhar official film poster.
Sometimes a film is just a film. Sometimes it's a director's vanity project. Sometimes it's a studio's attempt to milk a cash cow. But sometimes, just sometimes, a film opens a window to life, carefully observes the human condition, and gets it just right. Monsieur Lazhar, written and directed by Quebec native Philippe Falardeau, is such a film.
The opening sequence establishes a snow-covered elementary school in contemporary Montreal as its primary setting. Simon (Emilien Neron) and Alice (Sophie Nelisse), two Grade 6 students, are witness to a profoundly disturbing sight that involves the death of their teacher. In steps Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag), an Algerian immigrant who, aware of the tragedy, shows up in the principal's office to offer his services as a replacement.
The interplay between the students and their new teacher is awkward at first. Lazhar naively tries to inspire them with Balzac, an author light-years away from their experience. His understanding of educational protocols in Quebec and Canada is clearly lacking. And yet, his sincerity, concern and effort on behalf of the students demonstrably start to make inroads, especially with Alice and Simon.
It's a credit to the production team that the children who were cast for the film don't look like they're trying too hard. At every turn they perform admirably. From their varied personal dispositions to their portrayal of in-class rivalries and emotional responses, these students have the ring of authenticity.
The gradual revelation of the film comes in portraying the parallel process that Lazhar and the students are experiencing in dealing with loss, guilt, and grief. Knowledge of Bachir Lazhar's past, which includes tragic victimization, and glimpses of his continuing struggle to avoid deportation, are elements that inject tangible suspense into the plot.
Despite the storyline's serious nature, frequent comic relief is offered throughout the film. It comes through the juxtaposition of cultures (Algerian vs. Quebecois), some quirky characters, and the unfiltered and candid nature of the children. Whatever its source, the humour prevents the film's tone from becoming too heavy.
The film, at 94 minutes, is not overly long, and it's a credit to Falardeau's direction and superior editing that there is not a wasted frame on the reel. Scenes that could linger awkwardly cut naturally to new ones; dialogue that could easily devolve into platitudes stays natural and brief. The economy of words and images is, at every turn, impressive.
Monsieur Lazharswept this year's Genie Awards (Canada's Oscar equivalent) in key categories including Best: Editing, Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actress, Actor, Direction and (overall) Film. It also enhanced its credentials with an Academy Award nomination in the Foreign Language Film category.
Canadian filmmaking has its recognizable champions (Egoyan, Cronenberg), however, it's Quebec's film industry that appears to be consistently developing new and creative talent. It's my hope that English-speaking Canadians won't be dissuaded by subtitles, but will welcome the chance to be educated by such a finely crafted film as Monsieur Lazhar.
Bruce Soderholm is a freelance writer and educator who makes his home in southern Ontario.