Dir. Philippe Falardeau
Starring Mohamed Fellag, Sophie Nélisse and Émilien Néron
If anyone needs convincing of the awesome, raw, and untapped potential that lays dormant in Canadian cinema, one needs look no further than Monsieur Lazhar. In many ways, Canada’s entry for Best Foreign Film at the 84th Academy Awards is a perfect movie. From the grandest acting to the minutest musical cue, everything in the movie has its place. Nothing is done in excess or arbitrarily. Monsieur Lazhar is no doubt a crowning achievement in Canadian cinema and should be seen by everyone.
The film was adapted from the also excellent one-man play Bashir Lazhar, and stars Mohamed Fellag in the titular role. Fellag is a comedian by trade, but it is hard to glean any traces of comedy from his heartbreaking performance. After the suicide of an elementary school teacher, Algerian immigrant Lazhar is called in to replace her. Lazhar, however, is attempting to cope with the death of his wife and children in a socio-politically charged criminal arson attack. As Monsieur Lazhar attempts to bridge the cultural gap between himself and his French-Canadian class, he also lives in constant fear of deportation because of his refugee status.
The beauty of the film is not in how much tragedy it encompasses, but in how much of that tragedy is internalized by the film’s lead. Fellag convincingly plays a man who is being torn apart from the inside, and yet is able to suppress it in order to help his emotionally disturbed class move past the death of their teacher. Deep and profound sadness is the order of the day for this film and by the credits, all that is left is a great sense of pity; these feelings are amplified by Lazhar’s superb supporting cast, spearheaded by child actor Sophie Nélisse. Oftentimes, it seems that the young girl isn’t acting at all. Her genuineness of emotion, as well as her inability to grapple with the finality of death, leads to some of the film’s most breathtaking moments.
The underscore has the delicate task of complementing the melancholy tone of the film without being melodramatic. Martin Léon certainly had his work cut out for him. The score manages to carry the film beautifully, being soft-spoken and almost unnoticeable at times, and at others wields the full power of a grand orchestra. The soundtrack coupled with the beautiful cinematography makes this film a treat to behold.