‘Monsieur Lazhar’ find comfort in crisis

While I was an exchange student in England, I made friends with two Algerian graduate students and through them became aware of the personal side of France’s Algerian problem, something that I had been abstractly exposed to as an undergrad when my class read Albert Camus’ 1942 novel “The Stranger” (“L’Estranger”).  Philippe Falardeau’s Academy Award-nominated film “Monsieur Lazhar” illustrates an intimate aspect of the Algeria and immigration and living after someone familiar has died, contrasting the viewpoints of children and adults.

The movie about an Algerian immigrant substitute teacher in a Montreal grade school was adapted from a play (by Evelyne de la Cheneliere) and won several 2011 Genie Awards for Best Film, Best Actor (Fellag), Best Supporting Actress (Nélisse) and Best Adapted Screenplay.

In 1942, Algeria was still under French rule. The French had invaded and conquered Algeria in 1830. The violence and disease would cause a significant decline in the Algerian population over the next four decades but 50,000 French people would immigrate there. One wonders how the Arabs, Christian or Muslim, would interpret Camus’ novel. Surprise at the severity of the punishment?

During the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962) there was guerilla warfare, terrorism against civilians, and torture. In 1991-2002, there was an Algerian Civil War. With so many wars, just what is normal life for an Algerian?

For someone like Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag), a 55-year-old Algerian immigrant, he would have lived through both of those wars. If the movie takes place in 2011, Lazhar would have been born in 1956.

Set in a grade school during the winter in Montreal, the movie begins with the children.  Two friends, Alice (Sophie Nélisse) and Simon (Émilien Néron), exchange a few words at recess before classes begin, when one goes to get milk for his class. The door to his classroom is unexpectedly locked and when he looks through the narrow window, he’s horrified to see his teacher, Martine, hanging.

The children are all clean and fresh-face, glowing with innocent wonder and despair. We are lulled into thinking that this suicide is the worst thing that has touched their lives, but perhaps it is not.

The tragedy was discovered on a Thursday morning. Over the weekend, Martine’s classroom is stripped of all material memories of her and a fresh coat of paint is applied as if that would be enough to banish her from the memories of her young students. And who would want to teach in such a classroom?

Monsieur Bashir Lazhar introduces himself, applying for the open position on his own initiative, having read about the tragedy in the local newspaper. He tells the principal he has 19 years of experience teaching grade school.  Yet he begins the class claiming that he taught Mouloud Feraoun College and requires that they call address him more formally as “Monsieur Lazhar” while the other teachers allow the children to use their given names.

Monsieur Lazhar also requires that the desks be set in rigid columns, instead of the semi-circle Martine and the other teachers use. Much has changed since he attended school. Lazhar gives the 10-11-year-old children dictation Honoré de Balzac’s “La Peau de Chagrin” (“The Magic Skin”) causing the children to groan.

Yet Lazhar is not whom or what he seems. He’s not a permanent resident. He’s advised by a lawyer what a board will ask him as he seeks political asylum under threat of terrorism. And we soon learn that Lazhar was a civil servant until 1994 and then ran a restaurant. It was his wife, who taught school. It was also his wife who wrote a book questioning the justice following the wars.

After receiving threats, the family decided to move. Lazhar went first. His wife and children were killed before they could join him in summer.

Lazhar tells the fact-finding committee who will decide his status that even if the 1990s are over and the civil war has ended, “Algeria is never completely normal.”

There’s some irony that Lazhar embraces the language of imperialism and colonialism now to survive and yet in Canada has no use for his Arabic and finds himself at a disadvantage in English.

Yet Lazhar realizes as Algeria hasn’t recovered from its war wounds, his class hasn’t recovered from their grief even after the psychologist declares the children well and stops visiting the class. How should the children grieve? How can teachers help when they can’t touch them. The children are, the only other male teacher comments, “like radioactive waste”… hands off or you’re burned.”

Balzac’s “Le Peau de Chagrin” it begins with a young man about to commit suicide when he buys a talisman with Arabic writing from an old shopkeeper. We later learn what drove the young man to suicidal despair and in the third and last section, the price exacted by the talisman. At the center of Balzac’s story is a fatal love.

Certainly love central to “Monsieur Lazhar.” Even as winter warms into spring, we never learn what drove Martine, the teacher who committed suicide. We never see her in flashbacks. We only see a photo that Simon took with his camera. We learn that her husband never picked up her personal things. Likewise, we never see anything but a photo of Lazhar’s wife and children.

How does one exist in the absence of love and loss. How does one handle grief if one isn’t willing to talk about it? “Monsieur Lazhar” is a luminous, heartwarming thoughtful look at the question of immigration in the shadow of colonialism. Perhaps it is nothing but a contemporary fable about a man and a group of children who helped each other though their “hearts were scarred by grief.”

In French with English subtitles.

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