Film review: Monsieur Lazhar

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Still from film 'Monsieur Lazhar'

Review by Kelsey Oldham

Edited by Marco Cuevas-Hewitt

Film: Monsieur Lazhar
Director: Philippe Falardeau
Running Time: 94 minutes
Year of Release: 2011
Language: French


Expert performances convey loss, guilt and redemption in the classroom

The French Canadian film industry has grown substantially in both output and quality in the last ten years, Monsieur Lazhar being a prime example of the increasing calibre and uniqueness of Quebecois cinema.

Directed by Philippe Falardeau and set in contemporary Montreal, the film tells the deceptively simple story of Bachir Lazhar, an Algerian immigrant and teacher who takes over a primary school class after their beloved teacher’s untimely death.

On the surface, Monsieur Lazhar comes across as a seemingly unremarkable take on the ‘inspirational teacher’ cliché, yet it proves to be an emotional, moving and at times confronting experience that addresses many themes; among them, guilt, grief, and the realities of growing up.

The acting is superb, especially by Algerian actor Mohomad Fellag who portrays the title character in a subtly emotional performance. Bachir Lazhar is passionate about teaching, but struggles with his past outside of the classroom.

His quiet and unexplained sadness is both heartbreaking and intriguing. The audience is positioned to empathise with him, and even when some hard truths are revealed midway through the film, one’s sympathies continue to lie with Lazhar.

However, the most mesmerising performances are given by Alice (Sophie Nélisse) and Simon (Émilien Néron), two twelve year olds coping with the death of their teacher in different ways. Alice is headstrong and precocious, not to mention utterly cute and likeable, whilst Simon’s inner struggles are expertly portrayed as if by someone much older.

Both children absolutely nail what it is like to be caught between childhood and adolescence, especially when having to deal with death for the first time. The expert child performances are the exact opposite of syrupy and clichéd, making for a refreshing, un-Hollywood approach.

It is unfortunate that Monsieur Lazhar took so long to reach Australian cinemas after its nomination for the 2012 Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film and its 2011 release dates in Europe and North America. Whilst some of the storylines involving Bachir and a potential love interest seem a bit arbitrary, this one imperfection is balanced out by the subtle emotionality of the film, as well as a few laugh-out-loud moments, executed with perfect comedic timing by the children of Lazhar’s class.

It is, in summary, a moving and complex film dealing with many issues, without ever taking its audience for fools and spelling out every little detail or being syrupy or clichéd. Thanks mainly to the wonderful performances by its cast, Monsieur Lazhar will leave you thinking about its many issues long after it is over - the mark of all quality, thought-provoking cinema.