Monsieur Lazhar – Art 3/5 Ent 4/5 Worth 5/5
How close is too close? School teachers have endless and byzantine regulations – divined from lawsuits, abuses of power and Columbine worries – to have standardized connections with their students. Monsieur Lazhar is a story that puts those regulations under examination. An Algerian seeking political asylum in Quebec, Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag) steps in to the job of a class recently deprived of their teacher who shuffled off her mortal coil by kicking her own bucket in the very classroom she instructed her students. Unfamiliar with the thick rulebook and how instruction is done in Quebec, Lazhar finds himself bumping into the furniture quickly, upsetting the “feminocracy” of a woman-dominated school, but compensates by being an inspirational father figure to his grieving and confused students, inciting them to feel free to speak about what happened.
Adapted from the play by québecoise Evelyne de la Chenelière, who has a cameo as one of the students’ absentee mothers working for an airline, Philippe Falardeau superbly throws together a heavy drama with a lighthearted comic touch. Comedian-actor Fellag shares some aspects of his history with his character: they’re both victims of the Civil War in Algeria. Where Lazhar loses his family to a firebombing in their apartment building, Fellag dashed for Tunisia after a bomb was set off during one of his plays. When he speaks about the condition in Algeria to the largely unsympathetic bureaucrat reviewing his plea for asylum, or of the immigrant experience to a globe-trotting optimistic granola girl, its unavoidable to feel something real there.
The hidden genius of Monsieur Lazhar is its ability to criticize without irresponsibly condemning. The previous teacher who commit suicide presents the dilemma for the story and especially for one of the kids as to whether his complaining that she kissed him is what drove her over the cliff or not. The truth that the child exaggerated out of panic what was just a hug only complicates the issue, and the climate of fear of the “nuclear radiation” children, as one teacher describes the absurd situation of zero tolerance even for an encouraging pat on the back, transfers to the uncouth Lazhar’s rough first week as he smacks the kid upside the head for being an insufferable brat. The story doesn’t necessarily imply that things were better with nuns and rulers and teachers should go around making children uncomfortable with excess hugs, but it does question the reasonableness of turning a profession where adults must bond with pupils into as hypersensitive and emotionally closed a profession as your local accountant.
This nerf-pad-ization of our schools happened from legitimate worries of predatory teachers and schoolyard shootings, but as always the reaction to a problem is overblown in the rabble-rousing populus. It’s somewhat fortuitous that this film came out around the same time as the documentary Bully, and the latest overblown and unnecessary crusade in America against bullying in schools, despite being at all-time lows. Obviously, it isn’t always the teachers and students that are the problem, and though absentee parents like the one Mme. de la Chenelière plays leave their children almost needing a teacher like Monsieur Lazhar, overbearing parents can be just as bad. The troubled wise-ass kid in Monsieur Lazhar who drives much of the plot of course comes from a troubled home. Parents of one student echo the good ol’ boy Senator (also quite absentee) in The Emperor’s Club, who firmly reproaches Kevin Kline for wanting to “mold” his troubled son: “Mold him? Jesus God in Heaven, son. You’re not gonna mold my boy. Your job is to teach my son. You teach him his times tables. Teach him why the world is round. Teach him who killed who and when and where. That is your job. You, sir, will not mold my son. I will mold him.”
Always swiftly to the rescue, in a recent brilliant episode the South Park guys spoofed a ridiculous anti-bullying video that ironically stars the popular kids, with the unpopular ones as human confetti on the sidelines. In Lazhar, the faculty politics revolves around de-fanging the juvenile aggression of boys, whose display of teasing, hat-smacking and “King of the Mountain” is verboten. The problems to be found in the classroom and the schoolyard are legitimate worries, but the problems incurred by overreaction could be just as stifling and negatively affect future generations who treat social interaction like a trip to H&R Block. Monsieur Lazhar takes a non-teacher fish out of water as a narrative device to teach us that.