Monsieur Lazhar (2011)
Written by Evelyne de la Chenelière and Philippe Falardeau
Directed by Philippe Falardeau
At school in Montreal, two students discover that their teacher has hung herself in the classroom. The school works quickly to push the class past this event by repainting & rearranging the room while having a psychologist make periodic visits. A new teacher is found in a rush, Mr. Lazhar, an Algerian man who goes on about his experience teaching at a university in his former home country. Lazhar brings an approach unfamiliar to the students, emphasizing the techniques of grammar and spelling over more expressive forms of learning. He reads Balzac to the children and requires them to take dictation. One student, Alice, expresses her still simmering anger and confusion over the suicide of their teacher in an essay. This outburst causes Lazhar to re-evaluate his methods and the needs of his class.
I teach elementary school and have never been a big fan of the teacher & class dramas. The dramas are widely known like Stand and Deliver, To Sir With Love, and Finding Forrester. Every once in a while there is a comedy (School of Rock, Kindergarten Cop) but overall I have never been hugely impressed with English-language cinemas interpretation of teaching. The best movies I’ve ever seen about education have been documentaries (To Be and To Have & Approaching the Elephant). These two are wildly different from each other but both trying to get the root of what students should be doing in the classroom, or if they should even be in a school.
Monsieur Lazhar manages to explore the ideas of what should be learned while balancing the script with the story of a refugee seeking asylum. Lazhar isn’t entirely honest with the principal about his credentials and has to learn how to become an effective teacher. A student throws a wad of paper at another and Lazhar responds a with a quick, cold slap over the head and a demand for an apology. The student who was hit with the paper asks if Lazhar will apologize to the student he slapped. At the same time, particular parents want their children shielded from the reality of what their former teacher did and demand the school creates an illusory veil of contentment over the situation. Lazhar sees through this, imploring the principal to allow the children to express their grief but she is too frightened about what parents might say.
The film contains messages about multiculturalism and the themes of mentors & proteges, but it does this without feeling didactic. The way Lazhar adapts to the Quebecois culture and how his students learn from him is done organically without speeches or exposition. Offscreen events occur as we move through the winter and into the spring, but we are shown enough to get a sense of growth happening in Lazhar’s classroom. The performances by Mohammed Fellig (as Lazhar) and Sophie Nélisse (as Alice) are rich and layered, without being maudlin. As I watched the film, I kept thinking about how a Hollywood version of this would get so much wrong and essentially already has in so many other teaching centered movies.
Lazhar is closed out of the class’ sessions with the psychologist, and this leads to his concerns that the work of grief counseling in this context is going through the motions. As we learn more about the teacher and his life in Algiers we begin to understand why he has such a depth of understanding for grief and loss. The movie doesn’t ever give us that Dead Poets Society moment of the class rallying around their teacher because that doesn’t happen in real life. Instead, the story closes centered around the connection Lazhar made with Alice, which is closer to life. You do not reach everyone to the degree that you reach a few. There are always students who leave an impact on you and whom you hope are affected by your work. My “Alice” is a student I taught in 3rd and 4th grade, getting the honor to loop with her class. She is sixteen now, and we still keep in touch, my wife and I had lunch with her last summer and attended her quinceanera. Monsieur Lazhar touched in its honest portrayal of that limited connection with a class of very diverse young people and the struggles an educator experiences in knowing how much they can connect with their class.