August 19, 2012

Movie Review: Monsieur Lazhar

I have been meaning to watch the movie since I heard about it on NPR. Finally, I did. With a 97% rating on rotten tomatoes and Oscar nomination, Monsieur Lazhar, written and directed by Philippe Falardeau, it certainly sounded promising. 

It begins with a school in Montreal, where a boy, Simon, gets milk for the class because it is his turn. The classroom doesn't open, and when he peers inside he sees that Martine Lachance, his teacher, has hung herself. Alice, one of the most charming children in the movie, also peers in and sees her even as the kids are herded out of the school. When school reopens, the principal assures the distraught parents that the school's psychologist can handle their collective grief. 

Bachir Lazhar presents himself to the principal who still hasn't found a replacement, and he begins soon after. An Algerian immigrant, there are some cultural changes he will have to get used to. The movie questions the way education has evolved via Bachir's learning of the new system. When he lightly cuffs Simon on the head, he is reminded by a student that he isn't allowed to touch them. Not even a hug to comfort a crying child is permissible. This in fact, is why Simon, and Alice think Simon is responsible for Martine's death. Simon was going through trouble at home and was crying when Martine comforted him with a hug. He proceeded to complain that Martine had kissed him. While this is not why Martine killed herself, it is easy to see that the children would have thought they were somehow responsible. 

Another child remarks that the parents seem to be more traumatized at the death than them, refusing to discuss the matter and handling them with kid gloves. The curriculum also is something that Bachir will have to get used to, when his children cannot write down the dictation of Balzac. Alice gives him a few book recommendations for dictation that she thinks will work better. She also looks up Algeria and thinks it is really pretty. Her mom works for an airline so a babysitter spends the most time with her at home. 

When Bachir wants the school to address the childrens' grief by talking about the death, the principal refuses to even bringing it up. Even when a picture of Martine is found on Simon - who has drawn a rope around her neck to the ceiling and angel wings on her. In class, Alice blames Simon for her death while Bachir comforts the boy, reassuring him that it was not his fault. 

All through the movie, it becomes apparent that Bachir is dealing with a personal tragedy of his own. His family died in an attack the night before they were set to leave to join him in Canada, persecuted because of a provocative book written by his wife, who was in fact the teacher in the family, while he worked as a civil servant and later ran a restaurant. The principal who had kept him on despite knowing that he was a refugee and not the Permanent Resident he had claimed to be, but cannot do so much longer. 

The movie confronts the rules we have set about the education that children receive, and whether they actually help or hinder their progress. I love movies that say a lot without saying it - and this requires brilliant acting. All the actors in the movie are exceptional, the children included, and give nuanced performances while the excellent cinematography and editing does the rest, to tell a great story. Original music is by Martin Leon and he keeps it understated. 

I have given away a lot of the film without intending to, and for that, I apologize. 

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