MONSIEUR LAZHAR B+
Canada (94 mi) 2011 ‘Scope d: Philippe Falardeau Official site
This is the Canadian version of Laurent Cantet’s deeply insightful, Palme D’Or winning film The Class (Entre Les Murs) (2008), as both feature uninhibited and thoroughly engaging performances by children, where these 11 and 12-year olds are likely in 6th grade, much younger than the more outspoken 13 and 14-year old Junior High School kids in Cantet’s film, which was also written and performed onscreen by the teacher who wrote about his own classroom experience, all featured in his more autobiographical and near documentary classroom study in France. Rather than a searingly realistic, highly provocative societal analysis of race and social class, this is a more poetically impressionistic yet completely unsentimentalized view of a troubled classroom in snowy Montreal, where at the outset one of the students finds their teacher hung themself in their classroom just before school begins. All of the other kids are quickly escorted back outside except one who is haunted by what she sees, where much of the drama of the film takes place between these two kids, Simon (Émilien Néron), who discovered the body, and Alice (Sophie Nélisse) who is traumatized, best of friends before the incident, but both barely speak to one another afterwards. While the school brings in a grief counselor, there are many more kids affected than can be remedied by the actions of a lone counselor, not to mention a classroom without a teacher. When Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag), an Algerian immigrant claiming to be a Canadian national with twenty years of teaching experience in Algeria, submits his resumé, suggesting his experience can help calm the storm, this feels pretty inviting to the desperately underequipped principal (Danielle Proulx) who is in the all hands on deck mode. While this fictional film was adapted by the director from Évelyne de la Chenelière’s play (who also plays Alice's mother), the autobiographical element is Fellag, who fled Algeria after receiving death threats from his politically charged stage performances.
While tragedy sets the tone, Lazhar’s empathy for the children is beautifully understated throughout, where his enunciation of French is near perfect, yet he’s seen by others in the school as exhibiting a kind of naiveté, as if he’s culturally out of place, taking a racist stab at his heritage, as in the highly nationalistic French-speaking Quebec province, he’s not French born. But Lazhar handles this with a profound calm, reflected by the beauty of the uncredited musical score, which is the opening of Mozart's Piano Sonata in A Major, K. 331 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Piano Sonata In A Major YouTube (8:25), which has a near Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) like grace to it. Another emotional scorcher is Alice’s handling of her class essay on school violence, seen here: Monsieur Lazhar - 'Alice's Presentation' YouTube (1:08), where she reminds everyone just exactly what happened in their classroom. When Lazhar wants to share her essay with other teachers and with parents, feeling it is stunningly mature, the principal shuts him down, claiming it contains too much violence. Lazhar has a satiric way of communicating with the grief counselor, especially when she suggests all the children are healed, where he provocatively asks if those affected by death are ever healed? There are multiple layers going on here, as the children in the classroom take on an intense familiarity, where Lazhar is cordial and polite, but always challenges them with material above their reading level, introducing Balzac for dictation, for instance. The school also has a no touch policy, where teachers are forbidden from touching children, for any reason, which includes gym class, applying sunscreen, or even welcome hugs. This leaves Lazhar feeling like he’s in a straightjacket, as it’s obvious after such a devastating event many of these kids need adult affection, which they’re likely not getting at home, yet the parents then pass judgment and berate him, urging him to butt out of their affairs and stick to “his place,” namely classroom teaching instead of parenting.
Yet another strand of the narrative is Lazhar’s own life story, which comes out in bits and pieces, where we see him getting grilled by an immigration judge handling his request for political asylum in Canada, who is also quick to make judgments without ascertaining all the facts, which are horribly tragic in nature, yet Lazhar stands a chance of immediate deportation, where the kids may be forced to endure yet another quick and graceless teacher exit. While the audience slowly learns of Lazhar’s personal ordeals, the classroom never does, as he keeps his personal life separate, yet his own experience allows him to understand these kids in ways no other teacher is capable of, again underscored by hauntingly beautiful music, like Scarlatti's Sonata in F Minor, K. 466 Horowitz - Scarlatti, Sonata in f minor, K466 YouTube (3:39). There’s another gorgeous interior sequence that begins when the school is having an after school party, where the bass driven music can be heard as Lazhar is alone in his room, where he begins to dance, the first time he expresses any such liberated spirit, eventually seen by another teacher, Claire (Brigitte Poupart), who expresses a personal interest in seeing him. While she’s been an extensive traveler in her life, with happy photographs taken in unorthodox places, she’s appalled that Lazhar would never introduce his personal travel experiences into the classroom. His response is heartbreaking, that for all too many, travel is associated with the often impossible need to produce an endless stream of government mandated documents. Despite a potentially budding relationship, their perspective couldn’t be more radically different, as it is likely to be with the audience viewing this film. Lazhar’s profound maturity and insight into the hearts and minds of others would seem to make him the ideal teacher, yet when parents snoop into his personal affairs and find out about his supposedly confidential immigrant status, they start calling him a terrorist. This would be Canada welcoming him into the country with open arms—or is it a door slamming in his face? The subtle hints of inhumanity surrounding Lazhar’s experience are the heart of this highly affecting film, where the children embrace their teacher’s humanity, but adults are still quick to reject anyone who is culturally different from them.