The Classroom as Grief Therapy
Published on April 17th, 2012 | by Judith Dry0
Running time: 94 minutes. In French with English subtitles. Rated PG-13.
Sometimes the small stories are the loveliest, especially when they treat their characters as honestly and delicately as those we meet in “Monsieur Lazhar,” the fourth feature film from Canadian filmmaker Philippe Falardeau. The film tells the story of Bachir Lazhar, an Algerian-born immigrant to Canada who finds a teaching position at an elementary school after the previous teacher hangs herself in her classroom.
It may sound bleak, but Falardeau keeps the energy buoyant and light. A child’s grief is not something to be taken lightly, but the film depicts the students’ confusion delicately and simply so as not to lose all humor. The opening scene gripped me immediately. Our child protagonists Simon and Alice are out on the playground before school when Simon remembers that it’s his day to get the milk. He runs inside, but as he approaches the classroom door we see briefly what he sees through the narrow window in the door: legs dangling from the ceiling. The camera lingers on the milk cartons he drops on the freshly waxed tile floor as the bell rings and the children come running in. As the first adult realizes what happened she quickly ushers all the children back outside, but not before Alice sneaks over to get a look herself. This time, we don’t see what she sees. This film is much too classy for such gratuitous emotion. We’ve seen it once, the rest is better left to the imagination. The opening credits roll as the classroom walls get repainted from mint green to beige.
Enter Bachir Lazhar, an unassuming man with a kind face who read about the tragedy and happens to need a teaching job. No one else has inquired about the position due to the tragic situation, and he is hired immediately. He appears as if out of nowhere, and bristles when one student snaps a picture without asking permission. These are the only two clues that something may be off about him―and I couldn’t discern if it lent him a sinister quality or an air of Mary Poppins-esque mystery.
The mystery unfolds slowly as we learn why Bachir keeps to himself at the teacher meetings and shies away from the attention of a younger woman. His immigration status is in danger as he must prove that he left Algeria because of threats of terrorism. His proof that his life was in danger in his homeland is quite solid; someone set fire to his house, killing his wife and children. Bachir and the children are connected through their shared grief, though he is the only one who knows that. He tries to facilitate discussions about death when the kids bring it up themselves, and he is met with outrage from the principal and the parents. Falardeau draws the parallels deftly and delicately. On the walk home from school, Alice asks Simon, “Do you sleep? Do you have nightmares?” A few scenes later, Bachir’s lawyer asks him the same thing.
“Monsieur Lazhar” was an Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, and was named Best Canadian Feature at the Toronto Film Festival. The cinematography depicts the bleakness of a Montreal winter in bright, washed-out beiges and greys, punctuated nicely with a classical soundtrack. The acting is superbly understated. Fellag’s quiet sadness as Bazhir Lazhar is heartbreaking, and the young Sophie Nélisse as Alice plays a precocious child in mourning charmingly and gracefully. Their small embrace at the end of the film is one of the few moments in recent film memory that sent my hand to my chest involuntarily. “Monsieur Lazhar” is a lovely reminder that films need do nothing more than tell human stories of everyday heartbreak in order to achieve greatness.