Watching “Monsieur Lazhar”
The Montreal-set Canadian film “Monsieur Lazhar” is an inspirational teacher movie, but it eschews the dramatic flourishes and cliches that this particular genre is known for, preferring to operate in a more muted and matter-of-fact tone. The Algerian immigrant Bashir Lazhar does make a difference in the lives of his students, but he doesn’t perform miracles, a la Robin Williams in “Dead Poets Society” or Sidney Poitier in “To Sir, With Love.” Instead, he simply tries to instill his young charges, who are 11 and 12, with a love of learning, and also help them with the more complicated task of coming to terms with death.
Lazhar is hired after a beloved teacher commits suicide in the classroom; two students, Alice and Simon, both saw her body before being herded out of the school. The school principal is reluctant to hire Lazhar, but no one else expressed interest in the job, and she agrees to let him teach. He initially struggles to connect with his students, who resist his old-school teaching methods — he forces them to sit in rows, rather than a half circle designed to teach “team spirit,” and has them take dictation from Balzac. But Lazhar gets better, and begins to connect with his students, and to sympathize with them. The film’s central conflict stems from his belief that the students need more opportunities to talk about their teacher’s suicide and describe what they’re thinking and feeling, and the administration’s belief that such conversations should be discouraged, because they make people upset. (One student wisely points out that the adults are the ones struggling to deal with the teacher’s suicide, and that the students would have a much easier time of it if the grown-ups simply got a grip.)
As the year progresses, Lazhar, who is played with warmth and compassion by Algerian humorist Mohamed Said Fellag, makes friends and allies, but also a few enemies, although enemy might be too strong a term. He also, unbeknownst to his colleagues, is trying to obtain refugee status, and struggling to come to terms with his own grief over the deaths of his wife and children in a terrorist attack. In many ways, “Monsieur Lazhar” is less about the lessons gleaned from studying, and more about the messy process of mourning at school, as well as the constraints placed on modern-day teachers. For instance, the teachers at Lazhar’s school are forbidden to give children hugs, lest anyone get the wrong idea.
Lazhar’s culture shock is often quite humorous (I enjoyed his horrified reaction to the Rice Krispie treats at a school party), but director Philippe Falardeau doesn’t shy away from the inherent sadness of his situation. The film is richly detailed, with an unusually perceptive sense of the rhythms and seasons of school life, the disputes and friendships between children, and the way problems at home impact classroom performance and conduct. Unlike most Hollywood films about school, “Monsieur Lazhar” is interested in presenting a realistic picture of classroom life, and recalls two other recent films that also made an attempt to show how students and teachers really interact: the 2008 French film “The Class,” about a young teacher working in a rough neighborhood school, and the 2002 French documentary “To Be And To Have,” which documents a year in the life of a one-room schoolhouse.
I appreciated “Monsieur Lazhar’s” quiet, observant tone and lack of histrionics, but at times the film is almost too quiet, and I wondered whether it would have benefited from few more scenes showing Lazhar connecting with his students. We’re told, in dialogue, that they’re doing very well academically, but the process by which Lazhar figures out how to engage them isn’t shown: One day he’s struggling to reach them, and the next day he’s doing just fine.
The end of the film runs the emotional gamut. SPOILER ALERT! DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU PLAN TO SEE THE FILM! Lazhar lied about his background to get the teaching job, and is fired when the details of his move to Canada come to light, but the closing scenes show him at peace and happy, reading fables with his students. The film concludes with Alice running into the classroom to give Lazhar a hug, which, considering the school’s ban on physical contact of any kind, constitutes an act of defiance. This final image turns “Monsieur Lazhar” into a far more rebellious film than its contemplative approach would suggest, and gives the film an unexpected emotional kick. But the film doesn’t believe in closure, at least not in the conventional sense, and we’re left to wonder what will become of Lazhar and his students. Somehow, I suspect that they’ll turn out OK.
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