"Monsieur Lazhar" - Philippe Falardeau (2011)

Monsieur Lazhar (2011) is a French Canadian film written and directed by Philippe Falardeau and based on a play by Évelyne de la Chenelière.  It tells the story of an Algerian immigrant schoolteacher who has been hired to teach in a Montreal elementary school to replace a teacher who has just committed suicide.  The film has its own comic moments, but ultimately plays the tune of a humanistic drama.  The film acting is extraordinarily good – it is both natural and emotive.  Especially good are the two youths Sophie Nélisse (Alice) and Émilien Néron (Simon), although  Mohamed Fellag, the Algerian humorist who plays Bachir Lazhar, is extremely effective, too.

Most of the film depicts the activities of Aglerin-born teacher Bachir Lazhar in his classroom trying to establish a rapport with his eleven- and twelve-year-old students despite the various barriers that stand in his way.  There are four such issues that Lazhar has to deal with in order to achieve a normal and productive class environment:
  • One obvious obstacle to normalcy is the recent suicide of the class’s homeroom teacher.  She had hanged herself in that very classroom, and the students are understandably traumatized.
  • Another problem comes with the territory of 11-12 year-olds, an awkward age, when they are becoming assertive and adopting new roles.  On top of that, they are confusingly treated sometimes as adults and sometimes as children.
  • A third issue is associated with the cultural gap that Monsieur Lazhar faces between his Canadian cultural environment and that of his Algerian homeland.
  • And finally, there is a fourth issue that we only learn about later.  Although Bachir is educated, he doesn’t have the teaching background that he claims.  This is a new game for him.
Although most of the film concerns the relatively mundane classroom situation and Bachir’s efforts to be a good teacher, there are two thematically related backstories that really drive the viewer’s interest the narrative:
  1. The background of the suicide.  What drove the teacher, Martine Lachance, to commit suicide?  And why did she do it in her classroom? Two of the students in the class, Simon and Alice seem to know something that we the viewers don’t know, particularly Simon.
  2. The background of Bachir Lazhar.  We eventually learn that Bachir is a refugee, not a Canadian permanent resident.  His wife and children were murdered in Algeria when their apartment was firebombed by terrorists. So Bachir’s own horrific personal loss is something that he shares with his students, but not explicitly. 
Throughout the film, we watch to get more information about these two backstories, but in fact we get almost nothing.  We never learn much about the real truth behind the suicide.  We do learn that Simon was being privately tutored by Ms. Lachance, and that he had protested to the school authorities when she had once given him a hug.  Given the modern day obsession with pedophilia, Simon’s charge was evidently very distressing to his teacher.  Indeed the film makes explicit commentary concerning how modern pedagogy is hampered by the heavy surveillance teachers are under in connection with the possibility that they might accidentally physically touch one of their students.

We also don’t learn much of anything about Bachir’s tragic background in Algeria.  He is a private, thoughtful man, and he doesn’t want to invoke the horror of his own personal tragedy by talking it about it to others.

So in the end we don’t learn much about either of the two mysteries that have sparked much of our interest in the film.  What we are left with, instead, is perhaps Falardeau’s principal message and something that is explicitly mentioned by Monsieur Lazhar in the film.  The classroom is not something where we are must expose everything that is important about ourselves and strive for an impossible goal of mental uniformity.  Instead it is a place where we should come together in a common spirit of goodwill and share what we can and in whatever way we can.  Everyone has his or her own private background, whether it is from Algeria or the house next door.  We come together to contribute what we can to the communal environment.  The public space is a privileged space of interaction that becomes what we make of it.

Bachir wanted to give his students the chance to express themselves to each other – even about the “forbidden” topic of their former teacher’s suicide.  If they chose to express themselves on the subject, that was their choice; if they chose to remain silent on the subject, that was to be respected, too.  Unfortunately, the social and professional situation that he found himself in, and indeed that one we all find ourselves in, did not share such liberal sympathies.  But the over course of the movie, especially the final shots, the viewer sees that what Monsieur Lazhar taught his students was more important than what they could learn out of a book.

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