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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Monsieur Lazhar

Oscar-Nominated film comes to Milwaukee

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It's just another day for Alice and Simon at their Montreal grade school until Simon, passing by their classroom during recess, notices their beloved teacher hanging from the ceiling by her blue winter scarf. The adults swing into action: "No questions! Back to the yard!" shouts the first teacher on the scene, herding the pupils down the hall and into the snow-edged playground. But somehow Alice slips past and sneaks a look.

The Oscar-nominated Monsieur Lazhar is about the consequences of that teacher's suicide for an educational system uncertain of how to deal with tragedy (except by outsourcing it to grief counselors), for the 11-year-olds in her class and for a courtly yet determined foreigner who gets that teacher's job even before the opening is announced. An Algerian refugee, Bachir Lazhar is a benign and caring adult with decidedly old-school ideas on education. His students are bright, but they learned little under the loosey-goosey pedagogy of his predecessor. Lazhar will learn to loosen up, even as he brings his students to a higher level.

Directed by Canada's Philippe Falardeau from a play by Evelyne de la Cheneliere, Monsieur Lazhar gently critiques many things, including schools hooked on pop-psychology nostrums that deny life's harder truths. Really, bad things can happen in the "nicest" environments! The reasons for the teacher's suicide are left to the imagination, but her death has spun the head of the already-troubled Simon and has penciled a sketchy shadow of melancholy around the precocious Alice, cared for by sitters when her mother is traveling for work. The death has also given a precarious Canadian toehold to Lazhar, who, we learn, is willing to smooth the rough surfaces of truth as he faces deportation hearings as well as unemployment. Algiers, his beloved city of white buildings on a blue shore, has become dangerous. His wife and children have already been murdered because of politics.

There is comedy among tragedy and hope amid disappointment. Will Lazhar find companionship with his colleague Claire, a woman with a rather romanticized affection for the Third World? Will he be deported, or at least lose his job, if the false notes on his résumé are exposed? And how will Simon and Alice fare? Monsieur Lazhar presents no easy answers. The film is in French with English subtitles.

Monsieur Lazhar opens May 25 at the Oriental Theatre.