Friday, April 27, 2012

Monsieur Lazhar

I am sort of becoming convinced that the field for "foreign language" Oscar encompasses at least one film for each of the 6,909 known living languages—and possibly a few more like Elvish, Klingon, Esperanto or Aramaic.

And so it came to pass that the Boy and I ventured to see a movie in a strange, obscure language called "French", in an even obscurer dialect of "French-Canadian", called Monsieur Lazhar. "Monsieur" being the male honorific in this esoteric culture, similar to "Mr." or "Sir, With Love" here in the US of A.

I keed.

Quebec, or as I like to call it "French-Canada", is the location of this tale about an Algerian refugee who finds employment after one of the teachers hangs herself. We actually didn't know, going in, that it was a Canadian film, but the constant snow was sort of a tip off.

This movie is really a scathing indictment of the Canadian educational system, though I don't know if the moviemakers are aware of that. It's somewhat reminiscent of The Barbarian Invasions, where the crusty old socialist hippies die at the hands of the horrible medical system they insisted on foisting on their country, while all the time lamenting the attempts of the titular barbarians to bring it down.

Ostensibly, this is a movie about how we deal with grief and loss, and from that perspective, it's a tale well told. Mohammed Fellag, as the ironically named Bashir Lazhar ("bearer of good news", "lucky") is a very natural performer, apparently known in France for his stand-up routines. (Groucho Marx rightly pointed out once that comedy required dramatic chops in a way that drama does not require comedic chops, QED.)

But the more interesting aspect of the movie is the fish-out-of-water tale of a 60-year-old Algerian man trying to teach a class of Canadian kids in a modern school of political correctness.

Lazhar gets the job by claiming to have been a teacher in Algeria (though we quickly learn it's not true) and he immediately sets to schooling the kids the way he was schooled. They're used to sitting in a semi-circle, he puts them in columns and rows. He has them "take dictation" by reading from Balzac, which is way out of their league. (N.B., that wouldn't have been the case 50 years earlier when he was in school.)

At one point, one of the kids says something cruel to another, and he swats him on the back of the head and demands he apologizes. Later, he's called into the principal's office and accused of hitting a child, which he insists he never did. Truthfully, I think, since he doesn't regard a swat on the back of the head a "hit".

It's not really a "Dangerous Minds" kind of thing, in other words, where the teacher swoops in to save some underprivileged or racially correct kids. It's not really about pedagogy at all. But Lazahr is basically the only man around, except for two custodial staff.

The school has no concept of how to deal with boys. About the most horrible thing in the world to them is violence. When the boys play king of the hill, a teacher stops them. Another boy has dark, violent moods, and they talk about expelling him. Indeed, if there's an emotion running through this school, it's fear. (And how well does that describe public schools in general?)

But if there's one thing worse than violent contact, it's non-violent contact. Teachers are not allowed, at any time, to touch the children. And the teacher who committed suicide, it turns out, had been accused by one of the kids of giving him an unwanted kiss. (The movie does get around to pointing out that a child does not cause an adult's suicide, and that the adult in question was troubled to begin with, but it doesn't explore nearly enough the system's influence.)

As a result, Lazhar is the fish-out-of-water because he acts like a normal human being—an adult, who takes his responsibilities seriously and acts with both common sense and a normal respect for human dignity. Something only someone not immersed in modern pedagogical theory could do.

The Boy liked it all right, but he felt it was over-rated. (It has near perfect reviews on Rotten Tomatoes.) I liked it a good deal more, but The Boy only went to a couple of small private schools for a few years (and even then, he got exposed to the paranoiac fear of violence) so I think that was a factor.

Next up? A Korean war movie! (No, not a movie about the Korean War, but a movie from Korea about war.)


  1. This movie is really a scathing indictment of the Canadian educational system, though I don't know if the moviemakers are aware of that.

    I think you're oversimplifying. There were no innocents in this movie. And the students actually seemed pretty intelligent and well adjusted, so we can hardly condemn the school system.

    About the most horrible thing in the world to them is violence.

    But what was their understanding of violence? To them it was just a word for behaviors they didn't like. The problem with the teachers and the society they inhabited was that they had no exposure to actual violence. They were naive in this respect.

    Mr. Lazhar, and the students, seemed to have a better understanding of it than anyone else. One of the kids is even shown being irritated by their parent's concern.

    I think if this movie has a message, it's that children are a lot stronger than we give them credit for. Yes, they have emotional outbursts, but that's not because they are hurt particularly badly, just that they haven't learned to control their feelings yet.

  2. I think you're right about the intended message but violence to them was basically typical boy behavior.

    But compound that with the fact that the teachers can't even be human, and to some degree that played a role in the suicide.

    I also don't think Lazahr would've been tolerated long, regardless of his qualifications and despite his teaching skills. He was a restaurateur, presumably not beyond high-school educated, but he was perfectly capable of doing the job.

    The whole thing seemed supremely dysfunctional.


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