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Movie review: 'Monsieur Lazhar'

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Émilien Néron and Sophie Nélisse are middle school students dealing with a teacher's suicide in "Monsieur Lazhar."

In "Monsieur Lazhar," the eponymous Bachir Lazhar has the ideal temperament to be a teacher. A reserved man who holds respect and courtesy as almost sacred ideas, he adores children (though not in a creepy way) and values knowledge and learning.

Lazhar shows up at a Montreal school a week or so after a horrendous event: a popular teacher has committed suicide, hanging herself in her classroom while the children are at recess. One can only fathom the mind of a person who commit such a gruesome act with the obvious intention that her students discover her that way.

Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag) is an immigrant from Algiers, and claims 19 years of teaching at university. The harried principal (Danielle Proulx), desperate both to protect the psychologically wounded children and to get bureaucratic pressures off her back, hires him as the replacement.

Cultural differences, not to mention the understandably extreme emotional turmoil of the class, make for rough going at first. Lazhar gives one unruly boy a light cuff on the back of the head, and learns that the Canadian educational system frowns upon such things. Indeed, political correctness has taken things to such an unwieldy extreme, teachers are not allowed to touch students at all -- even disallowing the P.E. coach from steadying a child during gymnastics exercises.

This is a film of quiet joys and hidden sadness, of frustrations that bubble to the surface and emotions kept carefully tucked away. "Monsieur Lazhar" was an Oscar nominee for best foreign language film, and its spare grace is easy to see.
Writer/director Philippe Falardeau mimics the reserve of his main character, eschewing loud emotional epiphanies for moments of quiet struggle and resolution. The result is a movie lacking sweeping, syrupy catharsis -- and sometimes that's a good thing.

Two students among the 11- and 12-year-olds stand out from the rest. Alice (Sophie Nélisse) is the smartest in the class, and also the most willful. She approaches the suicide with a forthright maturity lacking among the students -- and even the adults.

Simon (Émilien Néron) is the class cut-up, whose jokes have taken on a nasty, bullying tinge as of late. He was especially close to his former teacher, and takes her death as some sort of attack.
In terms of plot, there really isn't much. Falardeau focuses almost exclusively on the school and its lessons, though there are a few scenes that give some insight into Lazhar's mysterious background, which contains its own tidal forces of sadness.

"Monsieur Lazhar" reminds me somewhat of "The Illusionist," a French animated film that was nominated for its own Oscar a couple of years ago. It's the sort of rare movie that chooses not to focus on the dramatic, pivotal moments that happen in life, but what comes after. It's not the wave crashing upon the shore, but the gradual receding back into the ocean.

-- Christopher Lloyd is co-founder of TheFilmYap.com.

MONSIEUR LAZHAR
Written and directed by Philippe Falardeau. Stars Mohamed Fellag, Sophie Nélisse, Émilien Néron, Vincent Millard, Danielle Proulx, Brigitte Poupart. In French, with English subtitles. 97 min. Rated PG-13: for mature thematic material, a disturbing image and brief language.

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Last modified: May 8, 2012
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