- - Tuesday, May 8, 2012

“Monsieur Lazhar,” a beautifully scripted and acted Canadian classroom drama about an Algerian refugee who becomes a substitute teacher at a Francophone middle school in Quebec after a female teacher’s suicide, is a lovely and moving exploration of death, grief and complex emotional relationships between children and the adults in their lives.

It is also glaringly politically incorrect. How, one wonders, did it ever manage to secure a 2011 Oscar nomination (best foreign film), a rave in the ever-so-liberal U.K. Guardian — or even, for that matter, emerge from the imagination of its writer and director Philippe Falardeau, a standard-issue liberal himself, judging from his press interviews?

“Monsieur Lazhar” jabs mercilessly at every sacred cow of today’s primary-education and child-development establishments: “progressive” pedagogy, smarmy “grief counseling,” school-based “anti-violence” campaigns that punish 11-year-olds for playing King of the Hill, and obnoxious double-career, double-surname, helicoptering yuppie parents.

I fell in love with title character Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag) the moment he walked into his classroom. He immediately had his students rearrange their desks from the “informal” and “egalitarian” circular formation beloved of contemporary educators into the straight rows derided as old-fashioned and rigid — with M. Lazhar seated at (not on, as is the custom of many of today’s teachers) his own big desk up front. Then he has the kids take dictation — from Balzac, no less. Dictee, the practice of having students write down the words of a passage as they listen to it being read aloud, is a time-honored staple of traditional French pedagogy (including my own high-school French classes), designed to improve one’s spelling, vocabulary, punctuation and ability to connect spoken and written words. It is, of course, hopelessly out of fashion, as is the notion that 11-year-olds can get anything out of Balzac. Go, M. Lazhar!

It gets better. Soon enough, M. Lazhar announces that for a field trip, he plans to take his class to a performance of Moliere’s “The Imaginary Invalid.” (“Your students must be ecstatic,” jokes a fellow teacher.) He teaches them old-fashioned grammar rules instead of the quasi-linguistic “transformational” jargon that is au courant. Yet his students thrive academically. They enthusiastically perform comic scenes from “The Imaginary Invalid” under his tutelage, they compete with one another to look up unfamiliar words in the dictionary as he urges, and they raptly follow as he turns Balzac’s metaphoric use of the word “chrysalis” into a science lesson about an insect’s metamorphosis from larva to butterfly.

If M. Lazhar sounds too good to be true, perhaps that’s because, in a sense, he is: It turns out he isn’t the veteran teacher in Algeria that he claimed to be when applying for his position. In reality, he’s a restaurateur who fled the country after the arson-assassination of his dissident wife (who was genuinely a teacher) and their two young daughters. He needs steady work in order to avoid deportation from Canada. M. Lazhar is simply replicating the education that he himself received years ago — but so what? Traditional pedagogy gets the job done.

Partly because M. Lazhar hasn’t bought into the fashionable therapeutic model of K-12 education and child psychology, he can see very well that his predecessor, Martine Lachance, might have been a ditz when it came to teaching young people anything, but they loved her, and they continue to mourn for her without respite, despite the ministrations of a professional psychologist and grief counselor brought in — along with a new paint job for the classroom — to bring about quick “closure.”

Particularly distraught are the two youngsters who glimpsed Martine’s body hanging from a ceiling pipe before being hustled off by other teachers: the bright and lonely Alice (Sophie Nelisse) and Simon (Emilien Neron). Simon is racked by guilt because shortly before her suicide, Martine had given him a camera with which to use his photographic talents — and also a hug, which violated the school’s predictable “no-touching” rules for teachers. Simon, on the edge of puberty and clearly attracted to his beautiful teacher (he took a picture of her), falsely reported the hug as a kiss to school authorities. He now blames himself for the suicide, and Alice blames him for ratting out Martine.

It is M. Lazhar, deep in mourning for his own slain family, who can cut through the psychobabble to the reality of the loss that he and the other teachers have been forbidden to talk about. With his literary traditionalist’s insight, he helps his students see that deaths such as Martine’s are often no one’s fault but, rather, the result of mysterious, sad circumstances such as the chronic depression that Martine had suffered long before her suicide. This, too, violates school rules, focused as they are on “anti-violence.” It is only a matter of time before the cognitive-elite parents of one of his students, already disposed to dislike him because he reproved their daughter, do some research into his biography and bring about his undoing.

Philippe Falardeau might not have realized that in making “Monsieur Lazhar,” he was making a powerful statement against the oppression of political correctness. But as an artist himself, he stayed faithful to the truth of the story he told, and truth will always trump pedagogical ideology.

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