If you've ever dealt with suicide, Monsieur Lazhar is a must see. Monsieur Lazhar isn't a film about suicide, but about healing and growing and renewing and learning how to spread one's wings. Nominated for an Oscar this year for Best Foreign Language Film, Monsieur Lazhar brings to mind the wondrous Ponette in the ways that it respectfully, tenderly lovingly portrays the grieving process for children with wisdom and masterful grace.
The film begins with an end. On an otherwise sunny day, a Montreal middle school is subjected to the unfathomable trauma of a teacher's suicide in her own classroom. The school is obviously traumatized, especially the teacher's own students. Into this scenario walks Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag, an Algerian comic/writer), a fiftyish Algerian immigrant who presents himself with 19 years of teaching experience and a willingness to give himself to a situation for whom the school's leaders can find no one else.
In the hands of Hollywood, Monsieur Lazhar would have likely featured greeting card sentimentality and a Mr. Holland's Opus style storyline. In the hands of Philippe Falardeau, however, Monsieur Lazhar is an intelligent, insightful and remarkably resonant film featuring a stand-out performance from Fellag and rather amazing performances by its young cast.
Falardeau clearly "gets it." He understands the middle school mentality, and he creates a world that is both fragile and open to seemingly limitless possibilities. Somehow, he balances the worlds of Lazhar and this otherwise nondescript middle school that has suddenly become easily described by the tragedy it has experienced. Among the child performers, Emilien Neron, as Simon, and Sophie Nelisse, as Alice, shine most brightly. It was Simon who first discovered his teacher's body hanging in the room, and Nelisse also became a witness to the situation.
What helps the film feel so authentic is that Lazhar isn't portrayed as a heroic figure. In fact, he is quite nearly as conflicted as the children for whom he becomes guide and mentor. To give away his story would be unjust, but suffice it to say that Fellag does an extraordinary job of capturing the layers of Lazhar and the motivations spoken and unspoken. Monsieur Lazhar portrays its teacher as more authentic and real than heroic.
If anything, Falardeau most calls into question the world and the ways in which we are raising our children. Lazhar is clearly instructed to never discuss the suicide, and the school has very clearly guidelines disallowing touch between students and teacher. While one can certainly understand this boundary, to watch it exist among children who are so obviously aching for human connection is simply heartbreaking.
Monsieur Lazhar picked up six Genie Awards, including Best Picture, and is currently on a limited nationwide release with a current run at Indy's own Keystone Art Cinema along with other arthouse cinemas throughout the country with distrib Music Box Films. While it sounds, perhaps, like the film would be depressing such a description is actually inaccurate. Instead, Monsieur Lazhar is an emotionally honest and consistently authentic film filled with moments of impenetrable grief followed by laughter, tears, revelation, wonder and, yes, renewal.