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Film Review

Monsieur Lazhar

Films that examine grief are not rare, but few tell so resonant a story as "Monsieur Lazhar". Philippe Falardeau, a young Canadian director (b 1968), has only made four films, with this being the first to screen in the US. Falardeau adapted the stage play to film, which looks closely at grief and the healing process, both with children and adults. The story is that of a tragedy in a Quebec middle school and its consequences. In story and style it is reminiscent of another great Canadian film, "The Sweet Hereafter" (1997), made by Atom Egoyan. In both films we see the effects of a terrible event on a group of children and adults, and their attempts to cope.

"Monsieur Lazhar" opens with winter scenes of a school playground, as the kids are at recess, running around and playing. One boy, assigned to take milk to his classroom, is stopped by a locked classroom door. He looks through the door glass and sees a horrifying sight: his teacher, Martine, an attractive young woman, has hanged herself from a pipe. Stunned, he runs for help. Minutes later, teachers are herding all the kids who are coming in from recess, back outside, so that none can see this grisly sight. But one girl, unnoticed, walks to the door, looks in, and sees. Coincidentally, she is a friend of the boy who had discovered his teacher hanging. All this, in the first ten minutes, begins the story of the event and an Algerian refugee, Bachir Lazhar, who applies for the dead teacher's job. He has a tragic story as well, which doesn't emerge until well into the film, although we hear hints earlier. The principal, desperate to replace her teacher, especially since no one else wants to work there now, hires Lazhar because of his previous teaching experience in Algeria. At the same time, unbeknownst to the principal, Lazhar has applied for refugee status with the Canadian government, a process that reveals his own story. The school is very strict about physical contact and explicitly warns its teachers to never hug a student. Lazhar is a much more traditional teacher than Martine, which the class doesn't appreciate. He is cautioned after lightly hitting a misbehaving student on the head. The story, not fast paced, but never less than riveting, continues along a surprising path with an unexpected ending. Its 94 minutes went by all too quickly.

Acting is superb: Mohamed Fellag, an Algerian actor and refugee himself, plays Lazhar, an Algerian refugee whose own humanity and sadness inform his teaching and relationships with his students. The children look angelic, perhaps too so, but they are wonderful actors with a naturalness that isn't seen in American films. The two children, Simon and his friend Alice, who saw their dead teacher are the focus of the film, and are transcendent here. The soundtrack is very appropriate, a mixture of classical and pop songs. The scenes are nearly all brightly lit, with vivid colors, even in the evenings, and seem almost a reaction to the sadness. Falardeau has made a fine film: sensitive, intelligent, and bursting with humanity. This is powerful, yet with a sweet poignancy mixed with sadness, but Falardeau is not maudlin or sentimental. I loved "Monsieur Lazhar", both the film and the character, and understand why it was one of the nominees for best foreign language film in this year's Academy race. Just opened at the Embarcadero and the Rafael Film Center (Marin).

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