Focus on power of words to hurt and heal

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MONSIEUR LAZHAR

DIRECTOR: Philippe Falardeau

CAST: Mohamed Fellag, |Sophie Nélisse, Émilien Néron, |Marie-Ève Beauregard

CLASSIFICATION: 10M

RUNNING TIME: 91 minutes

RATING: ****

Bitter-sweet and insightful, this Canadian Oscar-nominated drama is set in a French public school in Montreal. It gently touches on how children deal with and view death and violence and also the immigrant’s experience in Canada.

It also explores the teacherpupil dynamic without becoming didactic about the whole exercise, playing out like one of the fables used as dictation in the class.

As difficult as it is to touch on huge political issues and hold on to the humanity of characters, director Philippe Falardeau manages to do so, drawing poised performances from a relatively inexperienced cast.

The film starts off with the suicide of a teacher, which leads to Bashir Lazhar (Fellag) stepping in as a substitute teacher.

Coming into an establishment in crisis, Lazhar’s teaching experience mirrors his cultural experience as an Algerian seeking political asylum in Canada.

His more disciplined approach to teaching sets him apart from the rest of the faculty’s more touchy-feely approach. The staff see Lazhar as old fashioned in his approach, but the children respond well.

He has his own sad history and grief to cope with, which slowly unfolds as he simply tries to do his best under circumstances that aren’t very encouraging.

The delicate soundtrack creates a haunted feel to the film, underscoring Lazhar’s isolation. Despite his own grief he is actually the warmest character towards the children and Fellaq’s sincere performance grounds the story in reality.

Despite everything that happens, the children still manage to hold on to their innocence and a message of survival stops the film from becoming mired in the potentially maudlin nature of a film exploring death.

They’re a sweet lot of kids who know each other well and cautiously bring Lazhar into their circle. The children are allowed to be children and their natural performances draw you in.

While each of the children in the class deals differently, most attention is paid to the little boy who discovers the body, Simon (Néron), and his friend, Alice (Nélisse became the youngest winner of a best supporting actress Genie Award in Canada earlier this year for this role).

A fellow teacher urges Lazhar to be forthcoming about his background, just as she talks about her travels to Africa with her own class. She sees his exile as a journey; something to share with the children.

When he expresses the view that most exiles see coming to Canada as a trip without papers, uprooted to a culture that is not of your own, she doesn’t know how to respond.

The film is an adaptation of a play and great emphasis is placed on the power of words to hurt and to heal. Being set in Quebec, the French accents are different to what we’d normally hear on our screens, but the subtitles are well-handled.

If you liked... Entre les murs (The Class), The Edge of Heaven or Incendies... you will like this.


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