"Monsieur Lazhar" addresses the difficult topic of discussing tragedy with children. The film screens tonight at the Oriental Theatre.
We don’t talk about death with children. How could they possible understand what we ourselves can barely understand? We talk of people having gone on a “journey,” being in “a better place.” Heaven comes to mind. But how do you explain violent death or suicide?
Monsieur Lazhar opens on the playground of a middle school in Montreal. It is the job of one boy, Simon, to bring milk into the classroom after recess. The door to his classroom is locked. When he looks through the window, he sees his teacher hanging at the end of her blue scarf from a pipe in the ceiling. We never get a solid answer as to why she may have done this, or more importantly, why she did it at school, in the classroom, virtually in front of her students, who all seem to have loved her. But we don’t get those answers in life either.
Bachir Lazhar applies for the teaching position left open by the death of this beloved teacher. He emigrated from Algiers, and he has a secret. Not a dangerous secret, but a tragic secret. A secret that puts him in a unique position to empathize with the children’s sense of loss.
The procedure the school administration follows to help the students through this shocking occurrence is simple: a few words shared by the principal, a therapist, and asking the children if they are feeling all right. Every child heals at a different rate because each had a unique experience with Martine, the lost teacher, and different influences at home. But the school, understandably, is not able to deal with each child individually. The adults would rather put it all behind them and let the issue drop. Wouldn’t we all?
Bachir tries to stand back and not bring it up the subject as instructed. Perhaps trying to understand his own grief, he is particularly sensitive to the students lack of preparedness in dealing with theirs. So he talks about it with them. Neither the parents of some nor the administration find him to be helpful.
Monsieur Lazhar is a brilliantly low-keyed telling of this complicated and difficult story, written and directed by Philippe Falardeau. The acting, especially by Mohamed Fellag as Monsieur Lazhar, is beautifully controlled and naturalistic. It is such a relief to watch actors who are doing the opposite of calling attention to themselves, and simply and elegantly living through a story. When the story is as complicated and as painfully real as it is here it becomes a pleasure.
Monsieur Lazhar opens Friday, May 25, at the Oriental Theatre on Farwell.