As previously noted, not every film one sees at Sundance is a winner. However, Monsieur Lazhar turned out to be the best movie I have seen in recent memory. Now nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, I cannot think of any film at this year’s film festival more deserving.
It was during our viewing of the film that director Philippe Falardeau announced the film being shortlisted for the Oscar nominations. I was extremely pleased when those noms were announced on Tuesday.
The Canadian Monsieur Lazhar is a beautiful and moving film about grief and what is needed to move on. It tells the story of an elementary school which has been traumatized by the suicide of a teacher, a suicide that was witnessed by two of its students. It is also, however, the story of Bashir Lazhar, the replacement teacher, who has suffered a loss of his own.
This film acts as a study about the rigid rules that govern modern school life. As no touching is allowed between students or teachers, hugs are not something that are freely given, although much needed. The school board would also like to sweep the suicide under the rug, leaving the students with no way to channel their sadness and guilt. Through Bashir, though, we see that these rules are sometimes too strict and he encourages the students to communicate their grief in order to move on.
Bashir’s own personal story is weaved throughout the children’s stories, uniting them into a cohesive whole. There is a strong emotional message and impact, too, that will keep you thinking about it long after the movie is over.
Mohamed Fellag gives an excellent performance as Bashir, his chemistry with the children believable and honest. According to Falardeau, he was brought in from France, an Algerian with a similar history to the character he plays. His performance is understated and touching, perfectly in line with the tone of the film.
The children, too, are stellar in their performances. Falardeau discussed his method in working with them, allowing them to actually be children, on and off set, and find their own ways through their roles. And it works. These kids are stars in their own right, especially Emilion Neron and Sophie Nelisse as Simon and Alice, respectively, portraying the two students who witnessed the suicide. When Simon finally expresses his guilt and grief, the depth of his pain grabs you and leaves you reaching for the tissues.
My moviegoing buddy, a school counselor, was especially impressed with the portrayal of modern school rules and how they can often be more hurtful, than helpful. This not just a beatifully written film, but also an extremely honest one.
The ending of Monsieur Lazhar serves as a poignant reminder of the simple need for human interaction.