There are certain genres that from the outset do not sound too entertaining unless you absolutely love them. Some people love Horror and Action, some people don’t. Others love period piece dramas and romantic comedies. Another genre that has the ability to make people divided by name alone is the Inspirational classroom drama. These tend to lay low on the horizon until positive reviews and word of mouth entice more viewers. Any new movie in this genre can’t help but be compared to some earlier great films like "Stand and Deliver" or "Dead Poets Society." Unfortunately most others fall into clichéd melodrama. However, there is still some room for another well made one by the name of “Monsieur Lazhar” with its understated tone helping a simple yet moving story. It definitely resonated with the masses as it was nominated for ten plus awards including an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
Adapted from Evelyne de la Cheneliere's play, director Philippe Falardeau brings us the story of Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag) who is an Algerian immigrant living alone in Montreal. He becomes a replacement for a class of fifth graders whom has just tragically lost their former teacher. Both Lazhar and the students have their own issues that need mending and help each other learn that life can go on in the aftermath of personal turmoil. That’s the basic storyline, but this is more about presentation and a very well done final product. Death, transition and rebirth are the primary themes in “Monsieur Lazhar” accentuated by the drab color pallet and it taking place in the wintertime. The kids lose their unspoiled innocence because of experiencing death to someone close to them. Lazhar is also dealing with his own losses that leave him lost in a foreign land. There is a feeling of melancholic hope throughout the entire movie. These people may not be truly happy by the end of the movie but they will at least be able to stop living in withering grief.
The film retains its playhouse roots as most scenes take place within the classroom. Only rarely does the camera go outside of the school grounds. There are multiple scenes of elementary school learning which at first seem monotonous but always seem to lead to something significant that pushes the story along. There are also scenes of teachers in the lounge area having meetings or griping about school politics. One welcome aspect of the film is the way people interact with Lazhar. He is an Algerian immigrant in Montreal and it never feels politicized. His coworkers and students are always very polite and accepting of him. He is a person, not an intruder. To the kids, he is different which adds some excitement to their current lives. There is no “Patch Adams” lunacy here, Lazhar is a straightforward teacher whom the kids gravitate towards. To make this truly work, there is an important need to not only connect with both the teacher and students individually but also believe that they can help each other in an honest way.
With such a simple and emotional story at its core, the impeccable acting is what really elevates this film beyond forgettable melodrama. Across the board, everyone is completely believable in their roles, especially the kids. I cannot remember the last time I’ve seen such strong acting from children. The two child leads are Sophie Nelisse who plays wiser-beyond-her-years Alice and Emilien Neron who adeptly plays the troubled Simon are fantastic. It is sometimes tough figuring out if the child actors have natural talent or it’s the power of the director that can elicit such performances. Whatever it was in this case, it worked immensely.
Music Box presents the Blu-ray of “Monsieur Lazhar” in 2.35:1 aspect ratio using a 1080p AVC encode. Due to the genre, this is not demo material but looks fantastic none the less. As mentioned earlier, there is an intentionally drab color palette used which in turn renders all the colors flat. However, there is tremendous clarity that leads to some great depth in most scenes. Having been shot on 35M film stock, there is a natural filmic quality to the movie. There are no signs of artificial enhancing. The video presentation is very fitting to the film.
There are two audio options, a French DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track and a French DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. Although not bombastic like a modern actioner, there is quite a lot of good directionality, especially during the school dance scene. Again, there is nothing to wow you about the soundtrack here but the music and dialogue are realistically represented with much clarity. There are no English tracks, however the subtitles are set to On by default and are easy to read.
There are a handful of extras on the disc and they are just as sweet as the film. First off is “From Stage to Screen” clocking in at 33 minutes. Evelyne de la Chenelière and the director, Philippe Falardeau have a very light-hearted and funny discussion on certain changes and adaptations like Bashir’s story at the end to more fit the plot. Next is a feature called “Big Talk with Philippe Falardeau.” This is a strange sounding segment due to the TV host’s broken English. Not too informative but it’s good to see Falardeau being a good sport. “Alice and Simon Audition Tapes” showcases Sophie Nélisse and Émilien Néron’s acting chops. This was fun to watch knowing they would ultimately end up giving great performances. The two central stories that were read by Alice and Bachir are written out so you can read them which is a nice touch. Lastly is the film’s theatrical HD trailer.
“Monsieur Lazhar” is a terrific film that is impeccably acted. It is refreshing to see a simple story be filled with so much heart and maturity. This is an understated movie and does not try to be melodramatic in the least. It is smartly written and deserves all the praise it has garnered. The video and audio presentation is fantastic and the extras are worth a peek. Recommended for anyone who likes well acted human dramas.