Monday, April 30, 2012

Monsieur Lazhar!

by contributor Donna Shor
Photo credit: Courtesy of  Music Box Films

“Monsieur Lazhar,” the Canadian Oscar-nominated film that has endeared itself to audiences from Quebec to Abu Dhabi―winning prizes at five film festivals along the way―will opened at the E Street Cinema April French, with subtitles.

The sure hand of director Philippe Falardeau who has chosen the perfect cast, guides the absorbing story through a gamut of emotions from tragedy to gentle humor.

Bashir Lazhar, (Mohamed Fellag) an Algerian immigrant in Canada, on reading of the death of a teacher at a local elementary school, presents himself as an experienced teacher and is immediately hired by the principal, overwhelmed by the urgent need for a replacement.

She needs to restore stability because the children are plunged into grief, deepened because the death was a suicide. The children are not only grieving the loss of Martine, their beloved teacher, but they resent that she took her own life, thinking they have been betrayed by her leaving them.

Lazhar, a humble man, soon feels their resistance, not only because no one can replace Martine, but because his personality is low-keyed and rather formal, masking the warmth of his true self.  Also, he blunders―clearly through inexperience― by not being attuned to their learning level until, frustrated, they have to tell him that at their age they cannot handle Balzac as a composition assignment.

He is told by a colleague, not unkindly, that as a foreign immigrant, “You are not aware of nuances.” His life is withdrawn and lonely, despite the efforts of Claire (Brigitte Poupart), another teacher. A warm-spirited woman, clearly attracted to him, she attempts to draw him out.  There is a very funny scene where both he and she are at cross-purposes, because of his clueless awkwardness. 

As the story unfolds, the children begin to respond to his quiet kindness, and his compassion toward them. Neither they nor the brisk headmistress (Danielle Proulx) know the hurtful past he is fleeing or that he risks deportation at any time and an uncertain future, prison or worse.

With the arrival of a box at the post office, which appears to be a shipment of  apricot jam, we learn his story, and his fears. Linked to these are the fears of the children because of Martine and death. Deciding death must be confronted, he braves the taboo subject and by encouraging them to talk about her, angers the principal as well as parents.

The drama builds until the clash of two children in the class, his favorite pupil Alice (Sophie Nélisse) wise with an understanding mature beyond her years, and unruly Simon (Emilion Néron) who is burdened by a sense of well-earned guilt over Martine. Their conflict in an unforgettable scene leads to the dénoument.

Philippe Falardeau, screenwriter and director of “Monsieur Lazhar”, based the film on a one-man play he happened across. As he listened, in his imagination he peopled the slender story with the characters and situations that make the film so memorable. (The playwright, Evelyne de la Cheneliėre, appears briefly as Alice’s mother.)

Philippe Falardeau
Falardeau, who is now internationally acclaimed, began his film career in an odd way. He won a competition for a Canadian television series in which contestants needed to travel widely for 26 days, shooting 20 short films. That brought him attention as a documentarian and he went on from there, eventually making feature films.

After the screening, he sat with Hollywood on the Potomac for a brief interview:

HOP: Where did you find those exceptional child actors?

PF:      We interviewed about 200 children. Emilion had had a bit of experience, but Sophie had never acted before.

She stood out for me because of her amazing eyes, old eyes, in an eleven-year old face.

HOP:    Yet she is angelic with her pretty softness and rosebud mouth.

PF:       Sophie has an unlimited range and she will go far if she pursues an acting career. 

HOP:    How did you get that amazing performance from Emilion, in the emotional scene of anger and remorse?

PF:       I knew the scene was pivotal in the movie, and could validate the entire film, or hurt it. I observed that Emilion changed completely when we rehearsed it, then his father drew me aside. He said that Emilion had recently lost a beloved uncle. I asked Emilion if he was thinking of his uncle as we rehearsed and he said yes. I stopped all rehearsals and went straight into the shot.  That complicated scene was done in one take and I knew it was right.

HOP:   Above all, who is the man playing Lazhar when he is not on film. His tenderness and sensitivity were so touching. He went through all those emotions delicately and with restraint. I could imagine him being type-cast.

FP:       Not at all. He is actually a full-fledged comedian, a popular one, who is known by his last name Fellag. This was a major departure for him.

HOP:    Unbelievable!

FP:   I think perhaps the fact that he himself is an Algerian immigrant, living in Canada, a foreign country, had some influence and gave added depth to his portrayal. And that he is not used to playing dramatic roles added to the tentative feeling of Lazhar’s behavior.

HOP:     You have given us a memorable experience with this film. I keep playing the scenes in my head.

FP:   Thank you.

Watch the Trailer here: