Saturday, June 9, 2012

REVIEW: Monsieur Lazhar (2012)

The trailer for this one (^gaze yonder) is selling it as a transnational Dead Poets Society, which is kind of, sort of true.  It's not hard to see why the distributor picked this angle.  If you're looking to bring in a modern specialty film crowd—older viewers who are left cold in a summer of aliens, robots, and robot-aliens—an upbeat film is easier to market than a film where, in the first ten minutes, a young boy finds his teacher hanging from the ceiling.

A suicide is what sets Monsieur Lazhar in motion, and it hovers over the entire film.  The titular teacher (an amicable Mohamed Fellag) is an Algerian refugee who, having come to Canada seeking sanctuary, applies for a job opening at a school in Montreal after his predecessor kills herself.  What he finds is a community still in mourning, where everyone (especially the children) is still trying to make sense of a tragedy that no one can explain and no one wants to openly discuss.  The film finds its greatest meaning—and greatest success—in the way that this personal story mirrors the political: the film is centered on a diverse array of adults and children, several of them the descendants of colonialism or dictatorship, who have all huddled together under the same roof to build a community for the next generation.  So Monsieur Lazhar is first and foremost a film about the need for human contact in a very complex, stratified, globalized society, and the internal and external forces that stand in the way.  And while its view isn't entirely sunny—some gulfs can't be bridged so simply—it's ultimately a very warm, humane, and optimistic film.

Admittedly, I like what it's doing a lot more than how well it does it, which is to say that a few of the plot points feel obvious, undeveloped, or safe.  But it has an observant sympathy which shouldn't be taken for granted, and which makes it a fine entry in the realm of arthouse realism.  Nothing more, but nothing less.

4 out of 5 stars.

Monsieur Lazhar is now playing in select theaters.  It was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at this year's Oscars.

Directed by Philipe Falardeau
Written by Philipe Falardeau
Starring Mohamed Fellag, Sophie Nélisse, Émilien Néron, and Brigitte Poupart