Canada (2011) Dir. Philippe Falardeau
When a popular teacher at a Montreal junior school commits suicide, Algerian immigrant Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag) shows up at the school shortly after and offers his services as a replacement. He is taken on and after a slow start he manages to win over the kids and help them through their grief. However Bachir is hiding a personal loss of his own while trying to avoid imminent deportation.
Adapted from a 2002 one character play by Evelyne de la Cheneliere, Monsieur Lazhar is the latest film from the infrequently productive Philippe Falardeau, and made it to the final stages for the Best Foreign Language Oscar in 2012. It’s a tale of heartbreak, heartache and lessons in letting go in which the children lead the way better than the adults who molly coddle them. It’s about denial and hiding behind professional protocol rather than simple humanistic understanding while carrying a tragedy based political subplot to parallel Bachir’s suffering with that of the children.
At the centre of the fallout of teacher Martine’s suicide are Alice (Sophie Nélisse) and Simon (Émilien Néron) both of whom saw the hanging body, suffering deep psychological wounds but handing the burden in completely different ways. However they both have something in common – lack of parental support. Simon comes from a troubled home while Alice’s mother works on the airlines and if frequently away. Through Bachir’s help and gentle encouraging the class to express themselves on the subject of violence reveals the true feelings of loss and trauma of the class. Alice reads a surprisingly mature and incisive essay about Martine’s suicide which resonates deeply with the class and Bachir. Simon meanwhile enters into a life of bullying, picking mostly on the slow child of the class Victor (Vincent Millard) as well as clashing with Alice, coming to a head at the school end of year disco.
Secondary to the plight of the children is the story of Bachir’s presence in Canada. We learn early on that he is in fact a refugee from Algeria, where a book written by his wife angered many people causing them to flee the country and seek asylum in Canada, with Bachir going first. However before the rest of the family can make it out they are killed in an arson attack, something Bachir is left alone to prove to the immigrant authorities. All of this Bachir keeps secret from the school, most specifically the fact that his wife was the teacher of the family – he ran a restaurant.
If the immigration courts wasn’t enough bureaucracy for Bachir to deal with, the school head mistress Madame Vaillancourt (Danielle Proulx) doesn’t seem to agree with his unique way of helping the kids deal with their trauma. The rigid sticking of the rule book in which physical contact and other examples of simple interactions which could be “misconstrued” provides unnecessary conflict in the healing process for the kids, which even they begin to notice, not unsurprisingly preferring the open method of Bachir to the regiment of the official school counselling sessions. But, as conflict goes, Philippe Falardeau makes sure that this doesn’t overshadow the main issue of the kids emotional welfare nor does it make the school’s restrictive rules and protocols an evil presence that dictates the mood and direction of the story, just a nuisance stumbling block that Bachir refuses to allow hinder his progress, while arguing his case for the much more effective human approach, which a number of his fellow staff seem to agree with.
The temptation to make this a didactic tale is one many filmmakers would probably succumb to far too easily; Falardeau thankfully resists this and relays the tale without any such audience manipulation. If one is affected by this film it is through the power of the extraordinary performances from the young cast – Émilien Néron’s essaying of Simon during the climactic blow up scene in the final act is astounding for one so young while Sophie Nélisse brings the requisite precociousness to her absurdly mature character – and the grace under pressure existence of Bachir. Like the analogous swan which glides gracefully on the water’s surface while its feet are paddling like mad underneath, Bachir is the picture of resolute strength to his young pupils, despite valiantly facing his own personal trauma. Mohamed Fellag plays Bachir as a generous man with dignity and honour, who draws upon his own terrible experiences to relate to and offer to comfort to the kids.
The effectiveness of the film is how such a serious subject is presented in such a gentle and thoughtful way, much of which shows through the naturalistic performances of the children. The introspection and resolution of their feelings isn’t mired with any intention to tug on the heartstrings of the viewer, you either feel for the kids or you don’t. It is this simple, non-sledgehammer approach that makes this tragic tale such a genuinely touching viewing experience.
The wintry locale of Montreal makes for a suitably dour setting for this conversely warm tale yet a lot of the visual beauty comes from the shots of the children playing in the snow covered playground during the frosty season. Similarly there is a certain charm to be found in Bachir’s Algerian characteristics coming to the fore. In one scene when he thinks he is alone in the classroom after school one night, he does a little traditional dance which allows him to reconnect, somewhat tenuously, with his former life in his (hopeful) permanent new home.
Simple yet multi-layered, beautifully shot superbly acted and sensitively directed, Monsieur Lazhar is a film that offers a sense of hope while reminding us of the frailties and complexities of life in the wake of death. It’s a bleak but touching story suffused with humanity and understanding that seeks to lift the spirit of the audience as opposed to bludgeon them with forthright messages or indulgent symbolism. In short, a poignant but enriching watch.