Oscar loser still a winner

By Drew Hunt

When it comes to the Academy Awards, few categories are as controversial as Best Foreign Film. For starters, “Best Foreign Film” is something of a misnomer, as the award is seen more as recognition for the country as a whole, not for the film itself. Included in this year’s crop of nominees was Canada—a most curious selection—represented by the Montreal-set and –produced “Monsieur Lazhar.”

Mohamed Fellag plays the titular Lazhar, an Algerian immigrant hired to replace a popular teacher who hung herself in her own classroom—while the children were at recess, no less. Lazhar must help his new students cope with the tragedy while also battling past misfortunes of his own. Despite the distinct culture gap between them, Lazhar and his students build a symbiotic yet fragile relationship

Though it toes the tricky line between emotion and sentimentality, “Monsieur Lazhar” is a touching and occasionally moving story. Writer/director Philippe Falardeau has a deep respect for his characters, supplying them with complex backstories that are revealed with impressive fluidity. The film derives its strengths from the recognition of mankind’s myriad imperfections, driving home themes that are political by nature but injected with a tasteful dose of humanism.

The circumstances surrounding Lazhar’s emigration to Montreal are at once suspicious. For instance, the school doesn’t seek him out to replace Martine, the recently departed teacher. Rather, he learns of her death from the local news and takes it upon himself to offer his services, claiming to have been an educator for more than 19 years. But thanks a some nimbly executed courtroom scenes, his real past is revealed: Lazhar is a refugee, on the run from a group of terrorists who killed his family after his wife, who was a left-wing journalist, wrote an accusatory story about the country’s recent economic struggles.

Lazhar makes no attempts to hide his Algerian roots. When his co-worker comments on the country’s return to normalcy, his response is simply, “Nothing is ever really normal in Algeria.” Throughout the film, he carries with the weight of his nation’s past while mourning the loss of his family, with Falardeau synthesizing the two so that, textually, they become inseparable. It’s perhaps not the most tasteful of strategies, but “Monsieur Lazhar” benefits from the deep pathos that results.

The film also has much to say in the way of the teacher-student relationship. It’s possible that Lazhar sees his own son and daughter in Simon (Émilien Néron) and Alice (Sophie Nélisse), the only students to see Martine as she hung from the rafters and therefore the two most deeply affected by her suicide. Simon, sensitive and hostile, had a strained relationship with Martine and feels personally responsible for death; Alice, far more pensive and articulate well beyond her years, reacts existentially, not so much mourning the loss as questioning it.

As a trio of diverging personalities, Lazhar, Simon and Alice have much to learn from one another. They’ve each seen tragedy—albeit on different scales—and their reactions represent a wide measure of human emotion. Each character moves toward a redemptive arch as dictated by Falardeau slow and delicate plotting. This perhaps the film’s greatest strength: Even when the characters reach moments of catharsis, there are no sweeping gestures or grand statements.

Instead, the film’s most graceful moments come in simple gesticulations: a nod of the head, a pat on the pack or a simple hug is enough to communicate the significance of the moment. Even if the film was Canada’s attempt at an Academy Award, “Monsieur Lazhar” is tastefully devoid of clichéd Oscar trappings.