Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
It’s always interesting to watch a book or play get transferred to the big screen. Case in point is “Monsieur Lazhar,” a Canadian French-language film based on a play titled “Bashir Lazhar” by Évelyne de la Chenelière.
“Bashir Lazhar” was a one-character stage production, while the movie version lists more than two dozen roles.
For the film, Algerian comedian Mohamed Saïd Fellag takes on the title role as an immigrant hired to replace an elementary schoolteacher who has committed suicide. Recovering from a personal tragedy of his own, Monsieur Lazhar seeks to know his students in spite of their cultural differences. As the students cope with their teacher’s suicide, Lazhar must cope with the fiery death of his family, murdered because of his wife’s book exposing corruption in Algeria.
Think of it as a foreign-language “Goodbye Mr. Chips” or “Mr. Holland’s Opus” or “Dead Poets Society” – one of those noble teacher films. Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 97% rating.
At its heart, “Monsieur Lazhar” – currently playing at the Tropic Cinema – is a powerful portrait of the immigrant experience.
Although playwright Évelyne de la Chenelière had never been a teacher or an immigrant, she wrote the story because “I wanted to challenge myself by writing something that was very far from my life and what I knew.”
Directed by Philippe Falardeau, “Monsieur Lazhar” was nominated as Best Foreign Language Film in the 2012 Academy Awards. It was produced by the same company (micro_scope) that gave us the previous year’s Oscar-contender, “Incendies.”
Asked if the film was true to her play, de la Chenelière replied: “Absolutely. And yet Philippe Falardeau took all the freedom he needed to make it his own work.”
She worked closely with Falardeau on the movie’s script. “It was a long process,” she said. “When Philippe first wrote all his versions, I would read them.”
Also being an actress, Évelyne de la Chenelière benefited from Falardeau’s expanding her one-character play into a multi-character screenplay. She appears in the film as the mother of a student.