Maybe the best thing about Monsieur Lazhar is that the school children in it really seem to care about education.
Of course, it's in Canada.
Set in a middle school in Montreal, the French-language Canadian film is the story of Bachir Lazhar, an Algerian immigrant who volunteers as a substitute teacher, after a terrible event shakes the school.
He too has a past with horror and grief. How qualified he is isn't clear.
Bachir at first employs too-lofty resources as he tries to teach the diction of Balzac to children who are 11 and 12 (and one 13-year old).
But as he and the children evolve, and they reach communication, learning takes place - on several levels.
There's a "No Touching" rule which prevents physical touching, but Bachir and his young minions touch emotionally, psychologically - and intelligently.
Monsieur Lazhar is a movie fraught with uncertainty, as he and the students fumble and strive.
Fortunately, Monsieur Lazhar mostly avoids the patented pitfalls of movies that involve education. There are some recalcitrant parents, who have their effect. But Bachir is not victimized by his students or fellow teachers. Despite restrictive rules, the school is a family of learning.
Philippe Falardeau wrote and directed the movie, adapting a play by Evelyne de la Cheneliere. He and cinematographer Ronald Plante cast light on bright, empty hallways, and children on the snowy playground. They have a clear eye, focused on space, unfilled and filled.
The Algerian expatriot comic Fellag portrays the serious Bachir with restraint and humanity. Sophie Nelisse is bright-eyed and wonderful as Alice, Bachir's favorite student and possible lifeline.
Emilien Neron gives depth to Simon, who is caught between a child's guilt, anger, and accountability. And Danielle Proulx brings humanity to principal Mme. Vaillancourt, a woman who is restricted by the rules and regulations, but tries to do the right thing.
In Monsieur Lazhar, education can prevail over its literal restrictions.
Education transcends mere training - which is the definition for many in today's society. Is home schooling the answer? It provides many more answers than questions. But questions are the life's blood of education.
Teachers may make mistakes, but the good ones emphasize independence and intelligence. And interpretation. They serve inquisitiveness, not inquisition.
Monsieur Lazhar shows children who ask questions. They want to know.
Monsieur Lazhar promotes that lesson.
It asks the right questions.
For a change of pace, you might want to listen to interviews that I conducted in the 70s and 80s, some of which were published in my book Voices from the Set: The Film Heritage Interviews (2000).
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