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Non-Review Review: Monsieur Lahzar

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2012.

Monsieur Lehzar is a truly splendid piece of film-making, and a superb addition to the “teacher and class” subgenre, adhering to the type of mood and atmosphere that one expects from that sort of uplifting film, but with a little added nuance or bite to give it the edge. Adapted by director Philippe Falardeau from the play Bashir Lazhar by Evelyne De la Chenelière, it’s an impressively engaging film. It deals with fairly hefty themes in a way that never feels weighed down, or to sombre – providing a cautiously, rather than blindly, optimistic outlook on life.

Class act...

The movie deftly blends heartwarming wit with sombre drama. Indeed, the film opens with a young child discovering his teacher, hanging from the ceiling of their classroom – it’s fairly stark imagery, and the movie doesn’t shy away from exploring the consequences that an event like that can have on a bunch of young kids. Without wallowing in the tragedy, the film instead tackles the complexity of the situation. It doesn’t condemn the young teacher, but it’s not overly sympathetic either. While her colleagues might assign blame for the death, her replacement asks a very sincere question – why do it in a place populated with children? There aren’t easy answers, and it’s to the credit of the script that it doesn’t pretend to offer or any, or simply shy away from them.

Indeed, it might be easy for the movie to wallow in death and darkness. After all, we’re introduced to the eponymous replacement teacher, recovering from a massive personal loss and seeking refugee status in Quebec. Instead of dwelling on what he’s lost, he proactively sets out to heal – he isn’t under the illusion that things will get immediately better, but he does believe that he might be able to help the kids through their own repressed grief while coping with his own. It’s a nice central idea, and the movie tackles the subjects well, without ever getting sucked down. This is all rather hefty subject matter, and I am impressed that the film managed to be as wonderfully enjoyable as it was.

They've got his back...

Without sidestepping the issues, but also refusing to get locked down in them, the movie is relatively understated. It isn’t fair to describe Falardeau’s script as a comedy, but the film is punctuated with clever and sincere moments of wit. The characters, as brought to life by the cast, seem real and complex. In particular, director Falardeau has brought together a wonderfully competent bunch of younger actors to play the students. Special credit must go to Mohamed Fellag in the lead role, managing to create a fascinatingly compelling central character.

As played by Fellag, Lahzar is very clearly a man out of touch with the present – physically reprimanding an unruly student, failing to realise he’s on a date, trying to collect a package with a passport, not recognising rice crispy squares, or even teaching the kids using grammar that doesn’t exist anymore. However, he never seems like a parody or a farce, and his man-out-of-time aspect is never exaggerated. There is a wonderful moment towards the middle of the film, in the privacy of his classroom, where Lahzar listens to the music playing from the disco downstairs. In a rare moment of zen, his stoic exterior fades and he allows himself to dance, in a superbly shot one-take sequence.

Waltz with Bashir...

At the heart of the film, though, are some very well-observed and very interesting issues about how we relate to children, and how teachers are supposed to interact with kids in a word that seems increasingly sensitive to political correctness and other seemly insinuations and allegations. One teacher, in charge of P.E., observes that he’s forced to manage the kids “like handling radioactive waste” and can’t even get them up on the gym equipment for fear of getting “burned” with all sorts of accusations. So all he can do, literally, is have them run laps around the school gymnasium, with his whistle, “like a jerk.” It’s pretty hefty subject matter, and the film raises the issue remarkably well, never insisting one way or the other. After all, Lahzar manages to reach his class despite the limitations, even if his predecessor may have struggled with them.

There are a few very minor problems, to be fair, but the movie breezes over them efficiently enough. For example, you are willing to suspend your disbelief that Lahzar would be hired so quickly without a thorough background check – if only because it’s necessary for the film to work. Similarly, Falardeau sorts of skims over the early stages of Lahzar’s interactions with his students. It seems that he’s introduced as a relatively stuck-in-the-mud take-no-nonsense stoic figure, and then he suddenly wins over the class – there’s very little exploration of how exactly he developed such a strong bond, even if the bond itself is well-explored. That said, his old habits don’t necessarily go away, and there are still moments where it’s clear he’s a little “old school”, so to speak, but it’s a shame we don’t get see more of him winning the students over, for example. Instead, they seem initially hesitant and then fully converted. It’s a small point, but it does seem a bit odd.

Picture perfect...

Nonetheless, the film is still a wonderfully optimistic and light-handed exploration of some fairly hefty themes and ideas. It features superb performances, and a willingness to tackle the big subjects without getting dragged down – it’s warm and engaging, but that doesn’t mean that its shallow. It’s quite a wonderful accomplishment, and well worth a look.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 3

(It’s worth noting that this is very much a borderline rating between “3” and “4”, like Preludio last year – I kinda regret not giving it the full grade in hindsight.)

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4 Responses

  1. Now, that’s a film I really look forward to seeing. There is so much that is original and lovely in French film and Quebec seems to ba having a golden age. Last year’s “Incendies” was wonderful. Thanks for a great review that makes me want to see the movie as soon as possible.

    • Thanks Greer. I’m going to be controversial and admit that I wasn’t the biggest fan of Incendies. It just felt very manipulative and the “twist” seemed highly improbable. (Which, I guess, is strange if THAT violates my suspension of disbelief.) But, hey, people like different films and I’ll freely concede that I’m in the minority on this one.

  2. when is this movie coming to the states?

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