Grief, depression and dealing with death are never easy things to come to terms with, especially when you’re young. What makes the film “Monsieur Lazhar” — one of Canada’s contenders for Best Foreign Language Oscar along with “Incendiaries” — so special is that it captures the zeitgeist of pent up anxiety in a real and honest way. The film, directed by Phillipe Falardeau, deals with the suicide of a teacher and how it affects the students and the teacher’s replacement, Bachir Lazhar, played by Mohamed Fellag, who isn’t all he seems.
The performances are phenomenal across the board. Particularly notable is the young actress Sophie Nelisse who plays the character Alice. She is mature, grounded and almost seems like a French-Canadian Dakota Fanning with her blond hair, youthful appearance and seemingly old soul. Actually, all of the child actors give great performances. Emilien Neron, who plays a troubled young boy named Simon with a secret that could relate to the teacher’s suicide, is exceptional.
But Fellag, who plays the titular Lazhar, outshines his co-actors. He gives great pathos to the role, as well as a bit of ambiguity. While we find out he isn’t the teacher he said he was, and that he isn’t even a citizen, Lazhar remains a kind soul who only wants to help. However, what makes Fellag so remarkable is how he remains true to that honest, kind core of the character, but still comes off as mysterious and obtuse when need be. There’s a lot bubbling under Lazhar’s surface, an Algerian refugee seeking asylum in Canada after his family is brutally murdered. Fellag and director Falardeau do a great job peeling away his multiple layers one-by-one until a complete, captivating human being comes to life.
The praise extends beyond the acting. The writing, also by Falardeau, is solid. He successfully wrote children’s parts that are actually believable. This is impressive, considering so many screenwriters struggle with this today. Falardeau doesn’t just portray kids simply as wise-cracking adults, replacing “ass” with “butt.”
Furthermore, the stakes in the film are always held high (the well-being of the students), as well as continually raised. During the course of the film, we learn more about Lazhar and his citizenship status, which leads to many tense scenes in and out of the classroom. If there’s one complaint to be had, it would be the inclusion of a superfluous romantic subplot Lazhar shares with another teacher. A little romance in such a dour film doesn’t have to be bad, but this particular relationship does nothing to advance the storyline.
What the film lacks in this relationship is reconciled with the striking stillness of the cinematography. The cameramen use a lot of wide angles, long takes, minimalist set design and score, which allow the viewer to soak in the setting. The lack of movement and the silence put the viewer in a solemn place with the actors. Falardeau wants his audience to feel the looming presence of death, and he succeeds deftly without resorting to numerous monologues or maudlin scenes of crying (not to say there isn’t a fair amount of those too, but they thankfully remain perfunctory rather than self-indulgent).
Overall, I’d highly recommend this film. It deals with dark subject matter, such as suicide, Algerian terrorism and coming to grips with death; however, it, like Lazhar himself, also has a quiet dignity and kind soul. While slow, it is never plodding and always raises the stakes, keeping its audience riveted without explosions or lightning-fast edits. Don’t get me wrong, any movie benefits from explosions. But not all of them need to, and certainly not this one.