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Monsieur Lazhar

By Philip Martin

This article was published May 25, 2012 at 4:15 a.m.

— Monsieur Lazhar 88


Mohamed Fellag, Sophie Nelisse, Emilien Neron


Philippe Falardeau


PG-13, for thematic material, a disturbing image and language

Running time:

94 minutes In French and Arabic with English subtitles

It is Simon’s (Emilien Neron) turn to pick up the milk for his Montreal grade-school class before school starts for the day. And so he is the first to see - the favorite teacher has hanged herself from a ceiling pipe in the classroom.

He retreats.

The camera waits, wanders about for a few long seconds before teachers rush in, to repel a wave of arriving children. But one little girl, Alice (Sophie Nelisse), manages to catch a glimpse of the body before she is shooed away.

And so begins the delicate Monsieur Lazhar, a French-Canadian film that was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Oscar. It’s about the aftermath of inexplicable tragedy and the ways that grief is filtered through the everyday aspects of life until we heal (or don’t). The incident makes the newspaper, and an immigrant named Bachir Lazhar - played with great melancholy and warmth by MohamedFellag, an Algerian comedian and theater director - reads about it and presents himself to the school’s straitlaced principal, Mme. Vaillancourt (Danielle Proulx).

He is in Canada legally. Back home in Algiers, he says he taught school for 19 years. He is clean, presentable and extraordinarily convenient. She should probably check his credentials more thoroughly, but she has an immediate need. The man has an Old World courtliness andan air of melancholy about him. He will do - though he should be careful not to get too close to the children, to try to talk to them about the recent unpleasantness. There are counselors and psychologists qualified to deal with their mental hygiene. His task is simpler.

And so he begins, in his quiet - and foreign - way, to instruct. He is not completely clear on the protocol, he blunders and makes mistakes, and he acts the part of the courtly disciplinarian as he tries to maintain the appropriate, bureaucratprescribed distance from hischarges. But he can’t quite refrain from touching them - from giving them an affectionate pat or a corrective cuff.

He cannot refrain from telling them gentle truths, from insisting that what happened was in no way their fault.

For this, he is called on the carpet, and warned that children are to be handled at a remove - like toxic waste. No touching allowed. (But how does one reach children without touching them?) That he can’t quite do it is just one of his failings.

He may expect too muchof them - Balzac is not on their reading list. He is politically incorrect, and his French isn’t exactly their French.

But the students come to care for him as he cares for them, and almost covertly they form a kind of alliance against the well-meaning nonsense of the grown-up world. He tells them stories and invites them to tell their own. But he is no Mr. Chips, and he doesn’t urge them to “carpe diem.”

There is much he doesn’t tell them, a private history that belongs to him, things that maybe they don’t needto know. As it turns out, maybe he isn’t completely what he pretends, but his deceptions aren’t malign.

Director Philippe Falardeau does an extraordinary job converting unlikely source material (a one-man play by the Quebecois playwright Evelyne de la Cheneliere) into a naturalistic ensemble drama about the possibilities - and the limitations - of the teacher-pupil relationship. While it’s probably too low-key for mainstream multiplex tastes, Monsieur Lazhar is a temperate, generous and deeply affecting experience.

MovieStyle, Pages 33 on 05/25/2012

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