For a film that starts with an innocent schoolchild finding his teacher dangling from the classroom rafters by a scarf-turned-noose tied around her neck, Monsieur Lahzar is surprisingly upbeat. And not just for sickos who find schoolteacher suicide to be a great punch-line. This Canadian nominee for Best Foreign Film at last year’s Oscars is a light-handed, wisely simple contemplation of grief, with a take-home message that could be summed up on a scrap of paper crammed into a fortune cookie: “Let it go.”
Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag) is an Algerian immigrant. Well, not really an immigrant so much as a refugee seeking asylum after his wife and children were killed in an act of terrorism. This seems like another good place to point out how surprisingly sweet and chipper the film is. Moving on.
After the teacher mentioned in the first paragraph decided to play human pendulum, Lazhar wanders in off the street and instantly asks to take over her class, convincing the flustered principal to give him a chance. After all, who else would want to inherit elementary school kids who have been traumatized in a way “Charlotte’s Web” hadn’t yet achieved? Forced to teach in the same room, Lazhar begins slowly inching closer in particular to two students: Marie-Frédérique (Marie-Ève Beauregard) and Simon (Émilien Néron). The former is eloquent and reflective about the events, whereas the latter is all prepubescent rage.
Writer/director Philippe Falardeau’s obvious plot, namely that by Lazhar helping the kids with their grief he is helping himself as well, is aided by his nuanced cast. Fellag is the epitome of deft understatement, choosing to do with a lip tremor or wayward glance what lesser actors would do with tears or balled-up fists. Even the children are realistically guarded. When Simon’s confession is finally revealed, it feels so non-melodramatic that it is utterly and fantastically dramatic.
Unquestionably, an understanding of Algerian history would influence and enhance the themes of the film. Having absolutely no appreciation for it whatsoever certainly doesn’t hurt though, as the message of releasing one’s self-blame for an inexplicable death is a theme spoken in a universal language. Scenes of Lazhar grilled about why he chose to “abandon his wife” if she was in such danger are no less poignant without an education in the politics of Algeria.
If Falardeau’s film has a weakness, it lies within the supporting cast. If there is an argument being made about the handling of schoolchildren, it is both incomplete and incoherent. Half of Lazhar’s peers come off as Puritanical fools and the other as simply daffy and confused. Even the conflict that hampers Lazhar’s employment isn’t handled with the same delicate efficacy that is given to his refugee hearings.
But those few foibles aside, Monsieur Lazhar is a pleasant, kind-hearted look at about the saddest subject matter in the world. Although the film concludes with a decadently sweet and richly deserved shot, it almost felt like Lazhar had earned the right to simply walk out the door, open an umbrella and find Julie Andrews wherever she may be. This is a man who earned the right to be merry or at least with Mary.
Grade = B