Film: Monsieur Lazhar (2011)
Cast includes: Mohamed Fellag (L'ennemi intime), Sophie Nélisse, Émilien Néron, Danielle Proulx (C.R.A.Z.Y.), Brigitte Poupart (Congorama)
Writer/Director: Philippe Falardeau (It's Not Me, I Swear!)
Genre: Drama | Humor (94 minutes) French with subtitles
The colors of Montreal's winter are "white, gray and dog piss yellow." In the snow-covered schoolyard, Alice reminds Simon, "Your turn for the milk." Simon goes ahead of the others, gets the milk and brings it around... but the classroom door is locked. Through the window, he sees the partially concealed body of Martine, their teacher. She's hanged herself from a pipe. In the moments before the other teachers have frantically herded the 6th graders back outside, Alice gets a glimpse, too. It'll be a long time before they get past the nightmares.
The classroom is painted a different color. They bring in a psychologist to work with the kids. And Madame Vaillancourt is trying to find a replacement teacher when Bachir Lazhar shows up -- not because he saw the ad she placed, but because he read about the tragedy in the paper. "I taught for 19 years in Algeria" Madame Vaillancourt isn't convinced about his credentials. "I'm available now... part time, full time... it's up to you." With no other candidates, she agrees to give him a try. The kids hardly know what to make of their strange new teacher. He rearranges the room, he expects them to read Balzac. He doesn't seem to know they're just 6th graders. In the meantime, Bachir has to get ready for a hearing, something to do with his immigration status. "Maybe it's because you're not from here that certain nuances escape you." Madame Vaillancourt feels Bachir means well, but he has a lot to learn about teaching in a Montreal school. No touching of any kind. And no more Balzac!
The film's theme -- new teacher stepping into a difficult situation -- certainly isn't uncommon, but nothing else about this film is what you'd expect. Everyone at the school wants to do the right thing for the kids, even though they have different opinions about what's best. We're rooting for Bachir, even though we sometimes wonder why he doesn't seem to get it. "He even talks like Balzac," says one of his students, although by this time, they find him strangely endearing. This naturalistic film is so gentle and unassuming that it's easy to underestimate the powerful emotional journey it's about to take us on. In one of the lessons Bachir explains about a chrysalis, the stage between a caterpillar and a butterfly. Bachir believes he is uniquely qualified to help these children free themselves from the trauma of their teacher's death... something they'll have to do if they're ever to spread their wings. But as the season goes from winter into spring, it's obvious some of them are still struggling with the senseless act. "Don't try to find a meaning in Martine's death. There isn't one," Bachir tells them. And he should know.
4 popped kernels (Scale: 0-4)
Enigmatic Algerian man is hired to fill in after the suicide of the 6th grade teacher
Distribution: Art house
Tempo: Cruises comfortably
Visual Style: Nicely varnished realism
Character Development: Engaging
Language: True to life
Social Significance: Thought provoking
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You may also want to read about other recent French films:
The Kid with a Bike
The Well Digger's Daughter
Of Gods and Men