Monsieur Lazhar is a French Canadian film, a bittersweet comedy about an Algerian immigrant who gently moves into the role of teacher and comforter for a grief-stricken class of middle-school children in Montreal.
The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film of 2011. (It lost to Iran's A Separation.) But last month it swept the Genies, Canada's national film prizes, winning best picture, director, actor and three other awards.
Monsieur Lazhar was adapted from a one-man play titled Bashir Lazhar by Évelyne de la Chenelière. In the play, a teacher sits at his desk and talks to both the living and the dead. He's a grieving refugee seeking asylum in a world too busy with its own troubles to notice him, even as he takes over a class whose teacher has killed herself.
Filmmaker Philippe Falardeau saw the play in 2007 and, on the spot, told his producers that this would be his next film.
"He came right up to us when it was over," recalls producer Luc Déry. "We had a bit of a moment when we went, 'Hmm. OK. If you're sure.' It was a monologue, basically. There was a lot to invent ... for him to make it into a film."
The director saw the opportunity to invent a whole fictional population for a place found in every community — a school. And Falardeau immediately saw the larger context of the character and the setting.
"I'm always looking for some kind of social canvas to a story, and that comes from the period where I was interested in politics and international relations," explains Falardeau. "And also I think it forces me to really research my movie and not just write as a normal fiction author would do, just inventing things. I really research my stuff, and that also comes from the years I was a student in political science."
His research for this film included going to Algeria to see what Lazhar's life might have been like there. He also got help figuring that out from his star, the Algerian comic- and writer-in-exile who goes by the single name Fellag.
After a bombing at a theater where he was to appear in Algeria many years ago, Fellag emigrated to Paris, where he performs his own shows. He'd also starred in a Paris reading of de la Chenelière's play, and she called him to Falardeau's attention.
Falardeau's research also involved going back to school — middle school — to observe what he calls "a small laboratory of life." He studied how children interact now, and their curriculum. He also needed to know, he says, how kids fidget.
"That's the kind of details that you cannot invent, that you have to recycle from real life," he says. (Kids still fidget the way they did when he was in school 30 years ago — "that's the one thing that hasn't changed," he claims.)
Monsieur Lazhar is Falardeau's fourth film and — like the others — combines comedy and tragedy and often outrageously odd narratives in a way that can unsettle audiences. Producer Luc Dery says that for him, Monsieur Lazhar is about the dignity of one immigrant.
Déry's company also made Incendies, the prize-winning 2010 Canadian immigrant drama, and has another film about the intersection of the Middle East and the West on the way. Déry says it's almost an accident that the company has come to be identified with the subject — but it's also a reflection of reality.
"Pretty much everywhere in the Western world, immigration is a topic you cannot not address or reflect [upon] in our day and age."
The director, Falardeau, says he preferred not to take what he calls the frontal approach to reflecting on this topic; instead, he shows Lazhar confronted by his differences in more subtle ways.
Coming from French-speaking Algeria, the teacher thinks he shares a common language with his students. But he's surprised when the kids are dismayed at a dictation assignment using a French classic. He reads from La Peau de chagrin by Honoré de Balzac, ending with "I'm sure you all know it very well." They react with disbelief — then moans and groans.
The scene is a comic nod toward a common complaint of French Canadians — that they're made to feel like outsiders in Canada.
"Language is always an issue back home," the filmmaker says. "It's a survival issue. We're only 7 million people speaking French in an ocean of, I don't know, 350 million-plus speaking English. So dealing with the quality of our language, and how we speak it and how we teach it, and how we transmit it, is always an issue for us. So it was also a part of this film."
A part — along with school reforms that prohibit physical contact to a point that Falardeau considers extreme. And along with grief among children and adults, and along with a portrait of a man.
"I just wanted to show the immigrant as a normal person struggling with his own demons, and what he could bring to this class," Falardeau says. "And, you know, there's no reference to that, the fact that he's probably a Muslim, and we don't care. And he drinks wine, and I didn't make that an issue in the film. I didn't want to go there."
Next, Falardeau will venture into familiar territory — politics. He describes his new project as a black comedy about a Canadian politician. No word yet on what his research has dug up.