Bottom Line: Monsieur Lazhar is a heavy burden of a Canadian drama.
Directed by: Philippe Falardeau
Starring: Danielle Proulx, Emilien Neron, Fellag, Gabriel Verdier, Louis-David Leblanc, Marianne Soucy-Lord, Marie-Eve Beauregard, Seddik Benslimane, Sophie Nelisse, Vincent Millard
What a film. Interpret that sentence any way you wish, as the ability to efficiently devour the entire picture depends on how long a viewer is able to endure such unhurried pacing, before being bored to tears. Not that such concentration confiscates the film’s solidity entirely. Monsieur Lazhar is a solemn, reverent film, equally bleeding Canada and France in its atmospheric tone. Before two minutes have even passed by, we’ve already gotten the notion for a possible tearjerker–a more sophisticated one at that. Within this amount of time, we learn that an elementary school teacher, Martine Lachance (the barely-appearing Héléna Laliberté), has hung herself in her own classroom. Worse, this is noticed by one of her students who happened to have passed by the room. After the classroom has been entirely refurbished, a man by the name of Bachir Lazhar (Fellag) has arrived in lieu. Monsieur Lazhar, who recently immigrated from Algeria to escape his own losses, is very experienced in the field of teaching; he’s had the job for nineteen whole years. Although he isn’t the most short-tempered professeur, the class–11- and 12-year-olds who can adapt to his teaching style no more than find the courage to let go of their horrendously traumatic loss–seems to think he rules them with an iron fist. After a brief exposition to that deep plot, we would expect something great from the film. Introducing itself, the film does a clever job, but by the end, it has evened out too much. The results are only moderate success.
Monsieur Lazhar is an adaptation of Bashir Lazhar, a one-character play written quite recently by Évelyne de la Chenelière. Knowing this, the film–scripted by its own director, Philippe Falardeau–possesses a surprising ability to deliver and develop every last character presented. Perhaps the two teachers, despite one being deceased from the very beginning, result in the most depth. I sincerely hope that none of us can relate to the painful trauma that both Lazhar and his students have been subjected to, but we can certainly commiserate. The acting is just another step up in promoting the script’s laconic, troubled personality: young performers Sophie Nélisse and Émilien Néron are avid supporters of the somber mood, as is Fellag in the titular role. Where the script falters, however, is in trying to accommodate its story to an hour and a half on the screen. It doesn’t sound like very long, but God, does it feel like it. We get a peculiar feeling that the uneventful script is to blame on slight elaboration. The plot points could have played out more evenly in a short subject film, and at a more engaging pace. There are quite a few yawn-evocative moments here, especially in the struggle to transition from act un to act deux. But we can’t expect such a film, quiet from the establishment of its very premise, to be remotely exciting, can we?
By no means is Monsieur Lazhar bad or even mediocre. Let’s admit, it has the ability to convey an unknown sort of beauty and present some moments–particularly the shocking opening and the bittersweet conclusion–that will no less than resonate with an audience. On the other hand, it seems all too familiar. We’ve seen this plot countless times: bitter coexistence between character(s) who cannot forget their trauma (the students) and character(s) who just want to move on (Lazhar). Ordinary People is a mere start in this extensive list. Perhaps Monsieur Lazhar isn’t skilled enough to progress as an A-plus classic. At a B-minus, though, it’s a film deserving moderate recommendation.