Judge William Lee's conjugation of imperfect tense is less than perfect.
"Today you work with kids like with radioactive waste. Hands off or you'll get burned."
At a parent-teacher meeting, a couple cautions Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag, Intimate Enemies) that his job is to teach children, not raise them. Bachir, a new hire at a Montreal elementary school, doesn't want to create waves but he's concerned about the emotional health of his class. Monsieur Lazhar is the story of a compassionate man who puts aside his personal troubles to help his young charges through their trauma. This is not a portrait of a beloved teacher but Bachir is the rock in the middle of a storm.
Following the suicide of a popular teacher on the school grounds, a 55-year-old Algerian man presents himself to the school's principal (Danielle Proulx, C.R.A.Z.Y.) as a substitute. Mr. Lazhar immediately sets to work creating a structured classroom environment for the traumatized children. However, he soon notices tensions between students and a general reluctance among the faculty to talking about the suicide. Simon (Émilien Néron), the boy who discovered the teacher's body, is acting out in increasingly aggressive fashion. Away from the school, Bachir is coping with his own personal loss and facing a hearing of his claim as a political refugee.
Mr. Lazhar is the kind of teacher that students will respect in hindsight. Not funny, eccentric or easy-going, he brings old-fashioned values to contemporary pedagogy. When Bachir uses Balzac as the standard text for dictation, even the principal asks him to reconsider. Yet, it is Bachir's no-frills teaching style and directness that may be the best things for his students right now. In an institutional climate where "taps, pulling an arm, even hugs" are not allowed, he sees that keeping at arm's length physically and emotionally isn't helping the healing process. To be clear, this is not a sappy, feel-good movie about kids being inspired by their teacher. Rather, Monsieur Lazhar is a moving and smart treatment of grief and suppressed anger in the aftermath of suicide. Fellag's performance is so solid and believable in the title role. He is a man hiding his own grief but keenly aware of the powerful conflict of emotions in others. Even though he'd like to simply do his job and go unnoticed, his honesty and compassion make him the stable force that's needed.
The ensemble of young actors in this film is superb. All the child actors are as wise as their characters require and completely believable and natural as school kids. The script doesn't shy away from classroom scenes that observe the interaction between teacher and students during the quotidian lesson routine. American movies seldom show classroom scenes with such intelligence—Margaret does it in exemplary fashion with teens—and typical Hollywood movies wouldn't dare to depict school scenes with such realism. The standouts are Néron as the boy who struggles with his connection to the suicide and Sophie Nélisse as Alice, the girl who is most ready to voice her anger. Even the chubby kid (Vincent Millard) who gets routinely teased is given more humanity than you'd expect.
We received a screener disc in time for review so the technical quality observed may differ from the final retail DVD. The 2.35:1 anamorphic picture looked very good in terms of sharpness and color saturation. The film has a cool, teal color bias that is suited to the wintry setting of the story. Minor compression noise is noticeable but seldom distracting. The original French language track presented in 2.0 stereo was fine for this movie. Dialogue was strong and clear throughout. The retail DVD will have a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround audio mix.
No bonus features were included on the screener disc but the retail DVD is expected to have some featurettes and interviews. A segment on developing Évelyne de la Chenelière's stage play into the screenplay by director Philippe Falardeau (Congorama) should be interesting. I'd also like to peek at the Alice and Simon audition tapes.
Monsieur Lazhar was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film award at the 2012 Oscars. In its home country, the film was a big winner at Canada's Genie Awards where it took trophies for Best Motion Picture, Best Direction, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Editing. Acting Genies were given to Fellag for his lead performance and to Sophie Nélisse (11 years old then) for supporting actress.
The weight of its subject matter can't keep Monsieur Lazhar from being a captivating and hopeful movie. The performances are very good across the board. The script smartly and seriously addresses grief and our reluctance to deal with it. The movie gets a high recommendation and I hope Music Box Films comes through with some nice supplemental materials too.
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Studio: Music Box Films
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