School can be cruel. It's a message on display not only in the recent headline-grabbing documentary Bully, but also in the humble French-Canadian drama Monsieur Lazhar. Based on Evelyne de la Cheneliere's one-man play Bashir Lazhar, Philippe Falardeau's feature wasn't so humble as to miss scoring an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. But it is a sensitive and fairly subtle work, with the deceptive simplicity of a well-honed short story. Monsieur Lazhar takes an interest both in its titular hero, an Algerian immigrant who comes to teach a sixth-grade class, and his emotionally troubled students.
In the film's first scene, two students experience the trauma of discovering their teacher's body hanging in their classroom. The shockwaves of that suicide continue to lap against the students as the life of the school goes on, though the hapless administration does only the minimum (assigning a single counselor) to address the issue.
Matters look up when Mr. Lazhar (Mohamed Saïd Fellag) walks into the school and volunteers his services, explaining he taught in Algiers for nineteen years. He turns out to be just what the students need, and perhaps the job is just what he needs, the dual promise reflected in his name: Bachir ("bearer of good news") Lazhar ("lucky").
Secrets surface over the course of the film, ones held by the students and their teacher. Even as he recognizes the students need help to process their grief, he suffers in silence in his own grief process, related to his dating and immigrant statuses. Monsieur Lazhar isn't all gloom and doom; the classroom has the energetic strength in numbers of children, and Falardeau allows some comic touches from the kids and Fellag, a comedian by trade.
As depicted by the film, the cruelties inherent in the educational system include the expected results of familiar restraints (budget, stressed resources, and the pressures of oversight) and inflexible school bureaucracy, by which the students too often come last. There's also the unrefined social interaction of students just learning to understand their feelings, and hurting their peers in the process. And, of course, there's the bittersweet role of great teachers, who pass out of students' lives as easily as they arrive, after kindling an emotional bond.
Always hanging over the film is the horrible mystery of suicide, which disproportionately affects its young witnesses. Falardeau gently depicts the searching love-hate relationship between those witnesses: class clown Simon (Émilien Néron), given to aggressive acting out, and Alice (Sophie Nélisse), who quickly takes a shine to the school's sole male classroom instructor. The keen leading performances never hit a false note, but Néron gets the showpiece when he at last experiences an emotional breakthrough about his late teacher.
Monsieur Lazhar at times recalls more striking teacher movies, like The Class and Dead Poets Society, but it's a small gem of its own, meeting its kids on their level and celebrating a teacher who cares about their present and future.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]
Music Box goes to the head of the class with its Blu-ray release of Monsieur Lazhar. The clean, sharp transfer here benefits from true color (replicating the cool blue filtering), well-calibrated contrast, and deep black level, and the detail and texture are excellent: standard def DVD can definitely take a back seat to this Blu-ray. The same holds true for the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix—despite the drama's humble demands, the disc impresses with careful ambience that makes each environment more full and lively, while dialogue is never less than clear.
A healthy suite of bonus features kicks off with "From Stage to Screen" (33:34, HD), which finds director Philippe Falardeau interviewing playwright Evelyne de la Chenelière about her play and her thoughts on the film; the meaty interview, conducted in subtitled French, also includes clips from the original stage production and excerpts of the film's audition tapes.
"Big Talk with Philippe Falardeau" (21:30, HD) finds the director in the hot seat for an interview taped (in English) before a live audience.
We also get "Alice and Simon Audition Tapes" (5:58, SD), contrasted to the final scenes on film; "Theatrical Trailer" (2:08, HD); and two text pieces excerpted from the film: "Bachir's Story" (HD) and "Alice's Report" (HD).
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