WiFilmFest 2012 Encore: "Monsieur Lazhar" at Sundance
Post by Dan Walkner on 6/29/2012 10:04am
This review originally appeared as part of our Wisconsin Film Festival 2012 coverage
A friend of mine, a kindergarten teacher, nearly blew one of her student's minds when she told him that the large wooden door in the back of the classroom was simply where she hung her jacket; she didn't live in there. Realizing that teachers have lives outside of grading papers and writing report cards is something that children seldom consider. In the case of Monsieur Lazhar, played by Mohamed Fellag in this Oscar-nominated film, his life is complicated by his immigration status and a recent family tragedy that he has only just begun to process. Also, to complicate matters, he takes over a classroom left vacant by a young teacher's suicide.
In the film, written and directed by Philippe Felardeau, loud and lively children are juxtaposed with shots of the institutional sterility of the school building. Visions of cold and drab hallways open to apartments bursting with African violets and other eye catching décor. Looking out the window of his mundane flat, Lazhar sees snowflakes trickling like bits of spinning silver.
The visual dichotomy lends itself to the characters as well. Lazhar, at first, seems like an out of date task-master, but when consulting with Claire, a colleague, he fears for the future of the kids and worries his teaching is not good enough. Alice, who quickly becomes Lazhar's favorite, is sweet and kind to all but Simon, who she resents for his possible involvement in the breakdown of their former teacher.
The school setting is incredibly realistic. In hiring Lazhar, the principal is wrangling with the same bureaucratic forces we deal with in our school system including licenses, waivers, calming parent's fears and all the rest. In a few instances, Lazhar had to hold his tongue, even though he was right and knew what needed to be done. Once he was trying to tell a set of parents that their daughter was too bossy in a politically correct way, and in another scene, he was lobbying the principal with a strategy that he felt would help the students process the abundance of grief they carried. Denied on both fronts.
Monsieur Lazhar is many things but never sappy or contrived. It feels lived in and comfortable, even when you can sense the tension and pain that is being dealt with. It is real life. There are laughs, mistakes, lies, tears and everything else that make great films great. It isn't a Hollywood fairy tale; it leaves as many questions unanswered as answered. It creates more problems than it solves. But when the credits roll, you simply wish they would start it all over and play it again.