By Sharona Lin
There’s a moment of worry as Monsieur Lazhar starts. Canada’s 2012 foreign language film entry in the Academy Awards is set in bilingual Montreal. As schoolchildren play in the snow and babble in French, there are no subtitles, which is worrying. Luckily, with audible dialogue comes English captions, which most of the cinema-goers are thankful for, no doubt.
Early on, we’re introduced to Simon (Émilien Néron) and Alice (Sophie Nélisse), two young students at an elementary school. It’s a normal day – children play, teachers gossip, snow falls, and Simon runs in to get a crate of milk for the classroom. The door is locked so he peers through the window. When tragedy strikes, it is beautifully framed and totally unexpected.
Monsieur Lazhar is the story of Bachir Lazhar (Mohammed Fellag), who has recently moved from Algeria to Canada. As the new teacher, he tries to help the students in his class deal with their grief. The cultural barrier only makes this harder, as he struggles to deal with the other teachers in the school, as well as teach the class. At the same time, he is handling his own hardships.
The cultural gap means that Australian audiences may find this film tough going at times. In contrast to most mainstream English language films, Monsieur Lazhar is a slow affair, moving along almost lazily at times. Its languid nature is evident in its long static shots, most notably in a seemingly endless shot of an empty school corridor.
However, it’s rarely boring, boasting some gorgeous imagery. Ordinary things are granted extraordinary beauty. Some scenes are small masterpieces of cinematography, and linger in the memory long after the movie is over.
The acting is flawless, especially from Nélisse, who portrays a mature yet vulnerable 12-year-old. Most of the young cast are incredibly adept for their age, and Fellag stays clear of the annoying “inspirational” teacher role. Instead, he is insecure, sad, hopeful and yes, inspirational.
In the end, Monsieur Lazhar is a fascinating look at love, loss and the randomness of life.
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