2012 has been a disappointing year as far as movies go, but I've finally found something special in the beautiful Canadian-French film, Monsieur Lazhar.
Directed by the modest Philippe Falardeau, this film, set in Montreal, centers around Bashir Lazhar, an Algerian immigrant who begins teaching an elementary school class after its beloved teacher commits suicide. Lazhar, played by Mohamed Saïd Fellag with aplomb, is the kind of teacher who elevates his students, taking them to see Moliere's The Imaginary Invalid and reading them Balzac for dictation. At the same time, he's also deeply invested in them on a personal level, knowing that their grief parallels his own.
There are a number of interesting themes here, all handled with a deft touch: immigration and cultural identity in Canada/Quebec; the student-teacher relationship and its politicized, but sometimes imaginary boundaries; and unexplainable loss and the grief that accompanies it. There's also an interesting meta component to the film as Quebec itself has defiantly struggled to maintain its own cultural identity from the rest of Canada (there's an amusing joke about this at Lazhar's immigration hearing).
A compelling thread in the film surrounds loss and grief. After the class's teacher hangs herself in her own classroom, the administrative response is to move past it quickly, having the room painted a new color and using the school psychologist to "cure" the students. No one wants to talk about the suicide and why it happened, save for the children, who are disturbed by it in various complicated ways--none more than the two children who saw their teacher's dead body: Claire and Simon (Sophie Nélisse and Émilien Néron). Lazhar, recognizing this, defies the administration and provincial parents to give his students an outlet for honest communication. In a society obsessed with "closure" and neat endings, it was refreshing to see a film challenge such notions head on.
Fellage is the movie's anchor, though Sophie Nélisse and Émilien Néron are perhaps the true stars here, giving the kind of unaffected performances that only children can. The cathartic resolution of their conflict is a gut-wrenching moment in the film, instantly relatable to anyone who has tortured himself with secret guilt for too long.
Monsieur Lazhar is a terrific film, easily better than that piece of cotton-candy, The Artist. In watching it I felt grateful that films like this are finding the light of day, and was reminded of how much I care about good, thoughtful art--and that's something that I hadn't felt in a long time at the movie theatres.
Philippe Falardeau Interview