2011, PG-13, 94 min. Directed by Philippe Falardeau. Starring Mohamed Fellag, Sophie Nélisse, Émilien Néron, Danielle Proulx, Brigitte Poupart.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., May 4, 2012
This French-Canadian drama and its elegant study of grief, guilt, and recovery goes places that few films dare go. And it does so with an economy of expression that avoids the histrionics and uncomfortable sense of voyeurism that usually accompany such subject matter. Yet as remarkable as the film is – Monsieur Lazhar was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language film – there also remains the nagging wish that writer/director Philippe Falardeau had pushed even further. For all its intelligent observation of the ways children and adults process grief, the film remains unresolved and ambiguous about certain details. Monsieur Lazhar is fully absorbing, but you’ll still be waiting to exhale when you leave the theatre.
Monsiuer Lazhar is adapted from a play by Évelyne de la Chenelière, and not being familiar with the original source material, I cannot speak to the film’s faithfulness to it. What is clear, however, is the film’s desire to overcome the silent discretion that surrounds the subject of death, especially in conversations between adults and children. The film begins with an overhead shot of Montreal middle-school children in their school playground. One boy goes inside early to fulfill his assigned task of bringing cartons of milk to the classroom and discovers their teacher at the far end of the room hanging by a rope, an obvious suicide. The 11- and 12-year-olds in the class are understandably shook up, as are the school’s other students and teachers. A psychologist is brought in to work with them and, because hiring a substitute teacher through the regular channels proves difficult, the principal immediately hires Mr. Lazhar (Fellag), the Algerian immigrant who volunteers his services after reading about the tragedy in the newspaper.
His calm presence has a stabilizing effect on the children, whose improved performance raises no questions, even if some of Monsieur Lazhar’s teaching methods do. When the topic comes up, he allows the class to discuss the former teacher and the baffling nature of suicide. There is a bit of tension here and there concerning his third-world background in the midst of this slushy North American city, but it remains largely in the background. Monsieur Lazhar remains tight-lipped about his private life, but the audience comes to learn about the great human loss and danger of deportation that clouds his life. Falardeau conveys the story through a minimal number of scenes and interpersonal exchanges. The majority of the film takes place in the classroom (and U.S. viewers will just about fall out of their seats upon hearing the comparatively erudite level of discussion among these adolescents). Still, for a film that is so much about the healing power of words expressed and feeling brought into the light of day, Monsieur is strangely reticent.