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Monsieur Lazhar

It is incredibly well-acted and ultimately moving, but I could never quite shake the feeling that it will someday be remade in the United States starring Robin Williams as the teacher. Cast a bunch of precocious(racially mixed, of course)10 year-olds, and suddenly it’s “Dead Poets Society 2: the Elementary School Years”. I hope that Hollywood fights that urge, as tempting as the prospect may be. Instead, maybe U.S. audiences will give this Canadian French language work a look on DVD. The movie is based on a one-character play by Evelyne de la Cheneliere(who also plays Alice’s mother in the film).  It was nominated earlier in 2012 for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and it is the fifth and final entry on this blog for my SIP ’12 series. It contains a pair of astonishingly realistic child performances that had me recalling Francois Truffaut’s seminal French New Wave classic, “The 400 Blows”. The 1959 version of Antoine Doinel finds 2012 representation from two remarkably expressive young actors: Sophie Nelisse as Alice and Emilien Neron as Simon. In fact, 11 year-old Nelisse turns in the most affecting performance from a French-speaking youngster that I can recall since that of the pint-sized Victoire Thivisol in 1996’s tear-jerker, “Ponette”. And that should be interpreted as rapturous praise.               Bashir Lazhar(a solid Mohamed Said Fellag)is an Algerian immigrant who finds work as a substitute teacher at a Montreal school after the class’s original instructor hangs herself in the classroom while the children are in the courtyard playing during recess. This unforseen tragedy is first discovered by troubled youth Simon(Master Neron), and subsequently by the thoughtful Alice(Miss Nelisse), before the rest of the classroom is whisked away from the sight line by the shocked colleagues of the deceased woman. What follows is an examination of how current procedures enacted to protect children also unfortunately serve to alienate and confuse them. A simple hug can be viewed as either welcome support or inappropriate contact. Meanwhile, Monsieur Lazhar attempts to adjust to a new land and a new life with seemingly only a vague understanding of school rules and accepted protocol. Turns out he’s hiding a horrendous tragedy from his past, that involves the politically motivated killings of his teacher/writer wife and young daughter. And as he eventually comes to be admired, and even loved, by his pupils and fellow instructors, new questions arise as to whether he has been entirely  truthful regarding his resume.               Do yourself a service and be certain to visit some of the special features on the disc of this release. The early audition process of Nelisse and Neron was filmed and is presented here(again recalling a similar feature on the DVD presentation of “The 400 Blows”). It’s a voyeuristic peek into the intricacies of the casting procedure(the right “look”…the mining for charisma, chemistry and compatibility). It also contains an insightful television interview with the film’s energetic, award-winning director(Philippe Falardeau). And there are written transcripts of a pair of touching stories(read in the film by Lazhar and Alice in separate scenes)available too. “Monsieur Lazhar” is cautious about travelling the sentimental route, which is something a good deal of American releases could learn from(again, “Dead Poets Society”, and—aw heck, I’ll just say it…half of Robin Williams body of work!). It also boasts a haunting catharsis that brings the film’s themes full circle in a satisfying moment that wields power in its simplicity and brevity. It’s a sneaky little devil of a picture, and a bittersweet wrap-up to my Summer International Project.     Grade: B+

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