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Monsieur Lazhar (Music Box Films, PG-13)

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lazar sqThe French-speaking world in particular seems to have a knack for producing school films that create power by trusting the inherent dramatic possibilities in any classroom.

 

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Normally, I run in the opposite direction from school dramas, because I have a horror of sentimental, manipulatively uplifting stories populated by characters straight out of Central Casting. But in fairness, not all school dramas are born equal, and the ones I dislike tend to be Hollywood products. In contrast, the French-speaking world in particular seems to have a knack for producing school films that create power by trusting the inherent dramatic possibilities in any classroom. Truffaut’s Small Changes comes immediately to mind, as well as the Palme d’Or-winning The Class (Entre les murs). Monsieur Lazhar, Canada’s nominee for the Foreign Language Oscar for the 84th Academy Awards, is a worthy addition to this group.

Monsieur Lazhar (Mohamed Saïd Fellag, a distinguished Algerian comedian and actor, who won a Genie for his performance) is an Algerian refugee in Montreal who lands a job teaching elementary school after the previous teacher hung herself in the classroom. While coping with a class full of kids as well as a new culture (he’s apparently never seen a Rice Krispies bar before), Lazhar must also plead his case before Canadian immigration officials who doubt he is truly in danger. I’d certainly accept his plea, given that his wife was a controversial author who was murdered, along with her children, due to her criticism of the Algerian government, but then I’m not in charge of protecting Canada’s borders. The juxtaposition between the trauma in Lazhar’s life, and that recently experienced at the school, is deliberate. While the basic attitude of most of the school staff is to try to push the suicide out of their (and their pupils’) minds and to concentrate on conventional behavior and surface decorum, Lazhar deeply empathizes with his young charges, and respects both their emotions and their intelligence.

This film is clearly Fellag’s show (it was adapted from a one-person play by Evelyne de la Chenelière), but a pair of gifted child actors also delivers outstanding performances. Émilien Néron plays Simon, the boy who discovers the dead teacher’s body, and who is given to outbursts of violent behavior that nearly get him expelled; and Sophie Nélisse won a Genie for her portrayal of Alice, a quiet, observant girl independent beyond her years. As the school year continues, weighty issues keep rising to the surface, despite the school’s insistence on pretending that everything is fine.

There are no crescendos of emotion in Monsieur Lazhar. Things happen, but you are allowed to experience them on a human rather than Hollywood scale. Lazhar’s past life (it’s no surprise to find out that he cooked his own story a bit in an effort to get hired), as well as his insistence on relating authentically to his students, don’t bode well for his survival within a conformist system. It both matters and doesn’t matter, because it’s all part of life.

Director Philippe Falardeau, who also adapted the screenplay, allows just enough art in his direction to create a sense of heightened sensibility without overpowering the slender story, and Martin Leon’s sparse score matches the story’s mood perfectly. Monsieur Lazhar is the perfect school drama for people who hate the Hollywood version of the genre, but are open to simple and moving stories about people doing the best they can in a world that doesn’t always seem to encourage that approach. | Sarah Boslaugh

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