Fables of Compassion: Monsieur Lazhar
ADFF opens with the uplifting tale of an Algerian
immigrant making a difference in a Canadian classroom.
12.10.2011 - This year, ADFF
opens with the Middle East premiere of Monsieur Lazhar,
from French-Canadian director Philippe Falardeau, who won wide
acclaim with his previous film, It's Not Me, I Swear!
(2008). Winner of the City of Toronto Award for Best Canadian
Feature at last month's Toronto International Film Festival,
Monsieur Lazhar is a fine drama along the lines of another
French-language title set in a multicultural classroom: Laurent
Cantet's The Class (2008), though Falardeau's film is far
more gentle and uplifting.
Indeed, Monsieur Lazharhas shown broad appeal among
early audiences. Perhaps anyone can relate to its vision of adults
and children working together to deal with a tragedy. It is also a
splendid production: beautifully filmed, treating its subject
matter with skill and sensitivity, and marked by terrific acting
from adult and child actors alike.
Set in Montreal, Monsieur Lazhar relates to the Arab
world through its title character, an Algerian refugee fleeing the
violence of his unstable home. (This connects the film to the
strong lineup of Maghreb cinema screening at this year's Festival,
including On the Edge, Rough Hands, Always Brando and Death for Sale.) Algerian-French comedian Fellag
carries the film with dignity, his expressive features betraying a
glint of humor and a well of emotion beneath his stern composure.
The film addresses the complex topic of Canada's multicultural
identity frankly, while keeping the focus on universal
The story begins on a bleak note. One bitter winter's morning, an
elementary school teacher is found dead in her classroom. The
school and the community reel in shock. In the weeks that follow,
the children - all 11 or 12 years old - are anxious, lost; their
parents perhaps more so. Specialists are called in to counsel the
kids. The principal scrambles to find a substitute teacher.
As if by grace, a man named Bachir Lazhar arrives suddenly to
offer to fill the position. He says he taught grade school for 19
years back home in Algeria. When asked for his qualifications, he
states drolly, "I'm available now. They need a teacher, no?"
So this quiet, rather prim man begins teaching the class
according to how he thinks a classroom should function. He insists
on respect and courtesy - and on silence when he speaks. His
old-school ways clash with the school's open, egalitarian approach.
M. Lazhar is seen as rigid and behind the times.
The students aren't sure what to make of the man, but their
grief makes them malleable. Despite his authoritarian nature, M.
Lazhar shows them compassion and understanding during a confusing
time. Grimly, he must teach them in the same classroom where their
former teacher died. He's also accused of not respecting the legacy
of the dead woman. The room has been repainted in a feeble effort
to improve the atmosphere, but she continues to haunt the
It turns out M. Lazhar has already dealt with his own woes.
Early on we find out that he and his family were the victims of
political persecution in Algiers. He still suffers nightmares. In
this light, M. Lazhar's patience and good humor with the children
show remarkable strength of character.
We're not surprised when M. Lazhar's old-fashioned methods break
through the limitations of the system and he finds success - the
children's grades improve, and they start talking through their
grief. What matters is how Falardeau makes the formula work,
finding a nice balance of melodrama and subdued realism, letting
each scene feel natural however much it tugs at our emotions. It's
a gorgeous film. The muted, wintry palette of greys and browns and
pale pastels and cold, indirect sunlight illuminate the story
perfectly. One memorable scene features a series of close-ups of
the children's faces (African, Chilean and Arabic alongside
French-Canadian) as they pose for school photos; their openness and
sincerity speak volumes about the film's heart.
Perhaps it can't be like this in real life; perhaps an
asylum-seeker can't appear out of nowhere to win the hearts of a
group of children after such a painful tragedy. However, in one
revealing scene, the substitute teacher encourages his students to
express themselves by writing fables, and the nature of this story
becomes clear. Monsieur Lazhar is a kind
of a fable itself.
Monsieur Lazhar screens on Thursday, October 13 at 7pm
at the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr; and Friday, October 14 at 6pm at VOX
Cinemas, Marina Mall.