Review: Monsieur Lazhar

Monsieur Lazhar is a man nursing deep hurts, who steps in as a replacement teacher in a Canadian school after his predecessor unexpectedly commits suicide. His background I must not divulge, nor the possible reasons for the tragic event that has led to his employment. But what we must realise is how difficult it is for him to gain the trust of his class, to unearth the complexities of the traumatic event that has taken place and perhaps, in some way, help.

This new French film from Philippe Falardeau is an impressive achievement. Beautifully acted by Mohamed Fellag in the title role, and supported by an incredibly strong young cast, the actors are never anything less than convincing and convey beautifully the emotional complexities of their characters. It is refreshing, I think, to find such interesting and complicated characters for children of this age in a film, having to act with great maturity and display a huge range of emotions, instead of being the silly and false caricatures that we are normally presented with.

I might say that Monsieur Lazhar, in many ways, is hardly an original piece of filmmaking, and that the trajectory of its plot is easy to gauge. I hardly care; originality is not the sole criterion of quality, and this movie has far more important things to its credit, which makes it worth a viewing or two. What I found most impressive about the film is that it is told simply, with no hint of pretension, and in harking back to the ‘golden oldies’ uses quite a lot of obvious, token plot devices in its genre, but never strays into sentimentality or melodrama; on the contrary, this is somewhat quiet and subdued, very intelligent and moving due to its intimate observation of the characters and the school system itself, with both great poignancy and gentle humour playing their roles in perfect balance.

I have read many reviews of this film calling it ‘immensely uplifting’, even like ‘classic Frank Capra’. I understand what they are getting at, as it deals with serious themes on a deep level, and yet ultimately conveys a message of hope; but the joy of Monsieur Lazhar is that it is never sensationalised. I mentioned how the trajectory of this film’s plot may seem obvious; yet, along the way, its quiet maturity, made manifest in some of the story developments, surprised me. And this, I think, is key to enjoying Monsieur Lazhar and appreciating it for what it really is – a very wise, emotionally complex and moving film. It is uplifting, but not on a grand scale; instead, in its own quiet, bittersweet way, it shows how the process of healing has taken place and will hopefully continue to do so in the future.

Although I’m happy it was nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar this year, I agree that it should not have won; it is certainly not a masterpiece on the level of A Separation. However, in its favour, it is a good-hearted, sincere drama that delves surprisingly deep into the sorrow and guilt of its characters and still manages to be life-affirming. To make a film like this, and to do it well, takes a lot of skill; and I am happy to say that in this respect, Monsieur Lazhar is a considerable success. I highly recommend it.

12A certificate

Review by LiveWire Young Film Critic, James Martin (May ’12)