(No longer in theaters)
Music Box Films
Apr 13, 2012
In the Montreal-set film Monsieur Lazhar, a young boy, Simon, trudges into his middle school ahead of other students and opens the door to his classroom. Inside, his teacher, Martine, is hanging from a pipe, dead by her own hand. He stares at her body for a moment and calls for help, but the sound of children racing up the stairs as the school doors open drowns him out. Simon manages to find an adult to waylay the other kids just in front of the classroom, but one girl, Alice, peeks in. The next week, after the fuss has died down and no permanent replacement for Martine has been found (no one wants the job), a man shows up in the principal’s office and talks his way in. He’s an Algerian immigrant named Bachir Lazhar.
This could be the setup for a social-realist Mary Poppins: Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag, going in the credits by just Fellag) has floated in out of nowhere to help the kids through. But it’s soon apparent that he has little idea how to do it. The curriculum confuses him. Administrators and parents reprimand him for getting too personal. The distance between him and his pupils is vast. Teachers are not allowed to touch their students—not to hit them, of course, but also not to pat them affectionately or shake hands or, God forbid, hug them. No one but Lazhar wants to talk about Martine. But Lazhar too is holding something back: the tragedy that impelled him to seek asylum in Canada. He doesn’t share.
Writer-director Philippe Falardeau keeps most of the turmoil under the surface, but what’s on top is tense, pregnant, and ineffably sad, with a noninvasive and beautiful score by the singer-songwriter Martin Léon. Ineffably sad—yet there’s almost no loitering. The film is crisp, evenly paced, its colors bright, as sharp as the winter cold. Lazhar has a job to do and not, perhaps, much time to do it. Unbeknownst to his employers, he’s facing deportation if he can’t prove that returning to Algeria would endanger his life.
Fellag is a magnetic Monsieur Lazhar: willfully self-contained, anger vanquished, channeling his emotions into his teaching, into finding an equilibrium in the classroom—which is an obstacle course. He insists on his students’ speaking only French because, it turns out, he knows almost no English. They don’t know his secrets; he doesn’t know theirs. Two remarkable young actors, Sophie Nélisse and Émilien Néron, play Alice and Simon. At first they’re drawn together, then repelled for reasons we don’t understand until later. Simon is quietly ravaged, eaten alive with guilt. Alice wants to talk.
Beneath it all is Lazhar’s difficult-to-articulate but fierce conviction that the world is full of anguish and senseless horror but the classroom is where that all goes away, where civilization rules and children feel safe—where you don’t, if you’ll pardon my French, let your own shit interfere with young lives. If that sounds naïve, in the context of the cruelly unsentimental Monsieur Lazhar, it is something to cling to, to fight for.