99 minutes | MPAA rating
In the hands of an American movie studio the setup of of the French-Canadian “Monsieur Lazhar” would undoubtedly result in a bathetic wallow.
But writer/director Philippe Falardeau obviously is a very subtle fellow, for this classroom slice-of-life (a nominee for the Oscar for foreign language film) is quiet, thoughtful and gently moving without dipping into histrionics.
Certainly the subject matter invites big gestures. In the opening moments a grade school boy named Simon (Emilien Neron) discovers that while he and his fellow students were on the playground, their young teacher hanged herself from an overhead pipe in the classroom.
Only Simon and his classmate Alice (Sophie Nelisse) actually see the swinging body; the other kids are diverted from the scene of the suicide. But for those two young souls, the sight will weigh on them heavily.
The dead teacher is replaced by Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag), an Algerian immigrant. His qualifications are iffy but the school’s principal (Marie-Eve Beauregard) is having trouble finding anyone to take the gig (a fresh coat of paint does little to dispel the aura of angst in the classroom). So when Lazhar shows up unannounced and says he’s interested in the job, she gives him a chance.
What follows really isn’t a story so much as a series of encounters that create an emotional subtext.
Lazhar’s teaching methods are decidedly old-fashioned (he asks the kids to take dictation while he reads from someone named Balzac), but they appear to get the job done. The class’s grades hold steady.
Simon acts out with a surly attitude and even a bit of bullying. Alice wants to talk about this horrible event, but Lazhar has been given instructions to leave all such matters to the school psychologist. He’s basically forbidden to discuss his predecessor’s death.
Gradually we’re made aware of Lazhar’s own personal tragedy. He’s seeking political asylum in Canada after some sort of horrible event back in Algeria.
Those with short attention spans may argue that nothing much happens in “Monsieur Lazhar,” and they’d be right if you’re talking only about major plot developments. Falardeau’s script is
more intent on quiet observation than big dramatic blowouts (although young Neron has a classroom meltdown that is pretty spectacular); its power comes from the slow and steady accumulation of details.
That and the superb performances by its two child stars and especially Fellag, a comic, actor and playwright who fled to France when his theater in Algiers was the target of a terrorist bombing during the Algerian civil war a few years back.
Playing villains is fun. Same with assertive heroes.
But to portray a decent average individual – and make him or her utterly compelling – is one of the greatest challenges an actor can assume. In “Monsieur Lazhar” that challenge is met and conquered.
| Robert W. Butler