As the French Canadian film Monsieur Lazhar came to its poignant and heart-stirring conclusion on May 10, 2012 at the Michigan Theater, I felt glad that I was seeing it as the K-12 school year nears its end.
As adults working 12 months a year, we sometimes forget the finality of each school year ending, as children and educators let go of routines and bonds that have been carefully built over the previous nine months. And for many of the characters in Monsieur Lazhar, the end of the school year was the important, final step towards letting go of painful feelings and moving on with their lives.
I was also glad that I was seeing this beautiful film for a second time, after first viewing it at the Detroit Film Theatre on April 29, 2012. This second look added depths of understanding and emotion to my experience of the film, which almost felt like real life, because of the skillful way that director Philippe Falardeau took us into the lives of students and educators trying to recover from a tragedy in their school.
During the first part of the Michigan screening, I reflected on how my knowledge of the film’s plot helped me focus on how the director, cinematographer, and other crew members worked to achieve their effects. It made me think that part of our enthusiasm for film comes from a deep interest in the process itself, this elaborate world of make believe that taps into memories of childhood role-playing.
But soon, this interest in the filmmaking process faded into a caring, thoughtful re-acquaintance with the film’s characters. It was like I was having a vivid, visual memory of the events of the film.
I knew the full story behind each character’s actions, and what was foreshadowing during my first viewing of the film turned into an empathetic understanding during my second viewing. That was especially true with the title character, an immigrant to Quebec from Algeria whose own personal story gave him special insights into the grieving of his students over the suicide of their previous teacher.
The film includes many pivotal, revealing scenes that bring out emotions that are filled with both sadness and joy. As the film progressed, I savored every moment more and more, knowing that I would have to soon let go of this experience, and say goodbye to the characters. I felt like I was seeing the students at a unique moment in time, the way we see real children as they gradually change from day to day.
So came the ending, in the bright, happy sunshine of a playground, and then in a classroom where Monsieur Lazhar gives his students the gift of one last lesson, a fable about how to remember lost loved ones.
Monsieur Lazhar reminded me of another poignant film about childhood grief, Ponette, which I saw almost exactly 15 years ago at the DFT and Michigan. Like that film, I left wondering about the future lives of the young characters, and thankful for the innocent wisdom with which they had blessed us.
Copyright © 2012 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.