Saturday 21 October 2017

Moving with great depth

Paul Whitington

monsieur lazhar

(Club, IFI, 94 minutes )

Director: Philippe Falardeau Stars: Mohamed Fellag, Sophie Nélisse Brigitte Poupart, Danielle Proulx

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Philippe Falardeau's rivetting and profoundly moving drama Monsieur Lazhar opens amid the slush and ice of a wintry Montreal school playground, where a 10-year-old boy and girl joke shyly before he's sent off to get the class their cartons of milk. Simon (Emilien Neron) is on his way past their classroom when he notices a shadow swaying by the window: when Alice (Sophie Nélisse) follows him, she realises it's their teacher Martine, who has hung herself in the classroom.

How the school reacts to this tragedy drives much of Monsieur Lazhar's plot, which explores the political correctness and paranoia about litigation and scandal that now bedevils teachers everywhere.

The school's pragmatic principal Madame Vaillancourt (Danielle Proulx) brings in a psychiatrist, and repaints the offending classroom. But Martine's teacherless class remains in educational limbo until Monsieur Lazhar turns up.

Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag) is a courteous but melancholy Algerian immigrant who appears unbidden in Madame Vaillancourt's office one morning offering his services as a teacher. The principal hires him, and Monsieur Lazhar is confronted with a traumatised and divided classroom.

His teaching methods initially seem idiosyncratic. He gives them dictations from Balzac, and while his students converse in the broad-vowelled and quirky Quebecois dialect, Monsieur Bachir speaks flawless classical French. At first the kids find him and his Balzac a bit daunting, but gradually Monsieur Bachir starts to grow on them.

Though he's been warned not to mention Martine's suicide in class, Bachir begins to realise how traumatised Simon and Alice are by what they saw, and risks censure by encouraging them to talk about it.

Directed with commendable clarity and restraint, Falardeau's film manages to flit effortlessly between the juvenile and adult perspectives of a classroom charged with suppressed emotion and unhappiness.

And while it becomes clear that Lazhar has problems of his own, he emerges as a modest hero, an unshakably emphatic man who's determined to do right by his kids.

Algerian actor Mohamed Fellag is superb in the lead role, and presents Lazhar as a rounded, flawed, believable man.

And Neron and Nélisse are remarkable as the two unfortunate students. Occasionally, just occasionally, a good film can achieve the depth and complexity of a novel, and Monsieur Lazhar is a near-perfect example.

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