Culture & Conversation

Grin and Bear It

An Algerian teacher bandages the emotional wounds of traumatized elementary school students and faces his own demons.  Set in Montreal, Monsieur Lazhar is a decent two hours, although the deified teacher bit gets old.  Movie-goers apparently have an insatiable appetite for ass-kicking public school educators.

One Thursday morning, young Simon heads to class early to drop off milk cartons and, without even the customary foreboding music, discovers Miss Martine hanging from the ceiling. The next day, Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag) walks into the principal’s office with CV in hand and a radiant smile. He read about Miss Martine’s suicide in the paper and like any healthy opportunist thought “job opportunity!”  Alone and dislocated in Montreal, he’s a handsome man with a gorgeous, poetic accent who prefers almond samsas to Rice Krispies squares.

Though he’s worlds away from the children he teaches, and they all grieve untimely losses, Bachir’s is too painful to contemplate. Monsieur Lazhar quietly hints at these gruesome events like a wonky sign pointing the Road Runner off a cliff, wrapping up themes like justice and violence in primary school fables. It’s a fascinating child-like perspective, but that’s also one of my qualms. When Bachir alludes off-handedly to nightmares and pauses to contemplate crying into his African violet, it doesn’t even begin to evoke the turmoil he must feel. Director Falardeau, why is this man smiling so much? Anyone else would be rocking in a corner clutching his almond samsas.

Bachir reads Dany Laferrière as he works his obliques. Bachir takes on a classroom of traumatized students like an ultimate fighter at a mommy-and-me yoga class. Bachir’s entire family died in horrific circumstances, but he doesn’t need professional intervention, because while he is healing his students, his students are healing him.

The children are great actors.  It’s fascinating when someone a fraction of your age can do something infinitely better than you can. Simon (Émilien Néron) plays tortured fantastically well and I hope the kid’s not learning from life experience. His relationship with Alice (equally well-performed by Sophie Nélisse) is as nuanced and layered as an adult relationship.

The whole project has that understated Sofia Coppola feel, without the killer soundtrack. It presents a myriad of pedagogical and existential questions: what kind of relationship should exist between teacher and student? How should that relationship be expressed?  What does it mean to heal from loss? Can suicide be an act of aggression, and if so, does it make sense to blame somebody for committing suicide?

I still think it’s high time for a movie about a mediocre and painfully underpaid teacher who screws up children with his/her bitterness, but it might be a harder Oscar sell. Monsieur Lazhar at least manages to avoid the cheese factor of its genre. Worth a viewing.

Monsieur Lazhar is now out on DVD, and will be released theatrically in the US on April 13th.


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