May 29, 2012

Monsieur Lazhar

Milwaukee's historical Oriental Theatre
Last night, my husband and I went on a date to the historic Oriental Theatre on Milwaukee's East Side. The Oriental is one of two Landmark cinemas in the Milwaukee area that feature foreign language and art house films.  It is always a treat for me to go to the Oriental. I love the nostalgic movie house built in 1927; it feels like stepping back in time.  This is where my mom and dad had their first date (They saw South Pacific). I lived on the East Side for several years, and as much as I love our home in Lake Country, I still feel connected to the eclectic energy of downtown.  Eric is a great sport about going to French films, even though he doesn't speak the language.  He says he enjoys them even more now that he's been to Paris and to Quebec.  I suspect the fact that the Oriental now serves wine and cocktails in the cinema might help too :)

Unfortunately, the film we chose left us feeling uneasy.  Monsieur Lazhar is the story of an Algerian restaurant owner, hired to fill a post in a Montreal elementary school where a teacher has committed suicide. Later, we learn that the teacher, Martine Lachance, was being investigated for having inappropriate contact with her students. She had been tutoring Simon, a troubled young boy who didn't like being hugged. Simon blames himself for Martine's suicide and is certain that she planned for him to be the one to find her hanging in the classroom. We also discover that Bachir Lazhar is seeking asylum in Canada after his wife and children were killed by Algerian terrorists. Bachir does not have a teaching background, but his wife was a teacher in Algeria.  Bachir's methods are outdated, yet he manages to transcend his own loss to relate to his students and to help them to cope with their grief and anger.

As an educator, I was hoping to leave the cinema with a renewed feeling that teachers really do make a difference in students' lives.  I wanted to feel re-energized like when I saw Dead Poets' Society, Les Choristes, and Dangerous Minds.  Yet, in each of these films, even though the teachers are loved and respected by their students, they are all fired in the end. Philip French's Guardian review of Monsieur Lazhar asserts that: "The end sends you out of the cinema in a positive frame of mind, but it's neither triumphalist nor unrealistic. Some teachers will learn from it. All teachers will find it a reaffirmation of their vocation." I am not sure I agree with Mr. French. I left feeling troubled by an apparent cinematic paradox between truly connecting with students and crossing the line of appropriate methods.

On a side note, I was also puzzled that students in the film addressed their teachers by their first names, even though the film is titled Monsieur Lazhar.  I was horrified that a teacher would choose to end her life in her classroom where her students would be haunted by the image. I was fascinated by the different accents and vocabulary demonstrated by the film's Canadian and Algerian cast. And finally, as silly as it seems, I was distracted by the girls' plaid uniforms, the same skirts I wore in grade school! 

Our next movie date will be June 9 when Les Intouchables comes to the Oriental. Based on the review in the NY Times and the trailer we saw last night, I suspect this will be a more appropriately funny, feel-good date movie!