Review: MONSIEUR LAZHAR Teaches Gently and Bluntly

Jim Tudor, Contributor
An unlikely thematic companion piece to Wes Anderson's idiosyncratically wonderful MOONRISE KINGDOM, Canada's French language MONSIEUR LAZHAR explores the cause and effects of the adult world's over-institutionalizing of children's lives. LAZHAR may be far more grounded and sobering than Anderson's latest glorious indulgence, but is no less poignant when it comes to the ways of youth. With its affectingly authentic and memorable pack of children and unsympathetic depiction of the modern education and those who shape it, MONSIEUR LAZHAR delivers another 400 blows to a long-brewing systemic failure. It's graceful in its bluntness. It's all about people, fully formed characters and situations, realized in a straight-forward narrative entertainment that boasts few false moves, and even more greatly true ones.

Set in the typically rigid world of formal education, writer/director Philippe Falardeau's initial vision of the classroom is one of contained chaos, a Lord of the Flies waiting to erupt (complete with a Piggy surrogate taking his persistent, cruel lumps). The fact that this is the state of things immediately following the abrupt suicide of a beloved teacher (in the classroom, after hours) is less a reflection of the effect of the death than perhaps a small clue to the cause of it. But these kids are perfectly normal, as is the imposing school culture around them - one so troublingly isolationist that there is a no-tolerance policy for a teacher making any kind of physical contact with a student, however slight. This includes something as therapeutically innocent as a hug.

Enter Monsieur Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag, walking a performance tightrope, brilliantly), an Algerian immigrant with a pure heart of gold and personal baggage of grief. In the chaos of recovering from the teacher's death, Lazhar, with his papers in order and boasting (almost) enough teaching experience to earn him something resembling legitimacy with the principal, manages to assume the helm of the broken classroom. The delicious twist is that the only unconventional and nonconformist techniques he brings to the proceedings are old fashioned ones - the kind of stuff that earns a teacher sharp looks from modern parents and professional discipline from the powers that be. Stuff like teaching math and patting a kid on the head.

The film is never forcibly charming or precious, which, by description, it has every inclination of being. Thanks to both the sure hand of Falardeau and the spot-on performance by Fellag (who carries the film in a most seemingly effortless way), Lazhar is both the man of mystery we expect, yet an open book all the while. A walking contradiction, as it were. MONSIEUR LAZHAR doesn't go the simple route to the easy place, the way so many other teacher/student dramas have done in their own often vein attempts at being "inspiring". Somehow, primarily through the perspective of a teacher, (without forgetting the students,) the film manages to level of-the-moment criticism at not just the contemporary school system, but at the entire mentality of how we regiment and impose structure upon our children, putting our own legal fears and c.y.a. mentality above their well being more and more and more. MONSIEUR LAZHAR does all this gently, without vilifying anyone, without reducing anyone's humanity. It's dynamite with a Lazhar beam.

- Jim Tudor
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