Pras on World Films: MONSIEUR LAZHAR

Films about teachers and students are commonly inspirational melodramas about overcoming adversity inside and outside the classroom. The teacher is usually a newcomer to the school and initially dismissed by the students, but over the course of 90 minutes or so they wind up touching each other’s lives and all that mushy stuff. It’s a formula audiences are comfortable with. Writer-director Philippe Falardeau‘s Monsieur Lazhar breaks this mold and delivers a haunting look at grief, compassion, and boundaries through the eyes of both children and adults, while also examining the bureaucratic problems in contemporary teaching. Mr. Falardeau’s fourth feature film, adapted from a one-person play by Evelyne de la Chenelière  was Canada’s entry in the 2011 foreign language Oscar and nominated for best foreign language film.

In an opening scene of the film it’s Simon’s day to pick up cartons of milk and deliver them to his Montreal fourth-grade classroom before the school day begins. Only one other student sees this before the teachers usher all the students back into the playground. This incident, reported in a Quebec newspaper, is the inspiration for Bachir Lazhar (Algerian writer and actor Fellag) to present himself at the school principal’s office and volunteer to teach the class. Bachir Lazhar is a refugee from Algeria where he taught primary school for 19 years.

monsieur-lazhar Mohamed Fellag

The principal at the school is Mme. Vaillancourt (Danielle Proulx), who like most school administrators  is rigid in conforming to the rules. Hiring Monsieur Lazhar is a bit of an excursion for her, but he is a well-spoken, presentable man and makes a good impression.  The film chronicles events in the classroom throughout the year, as Lazhar tries to help his students cope with feelings of abandonment and loss, while balancing educational policy that requires teachers to relate to children at a physical and emotional distance. The students take to him fast though and as days go by we learn more details about Lazhar’s personal tragedies and loss. Like the children he’s now responsible for, Lazhar too is in need of a safe haven. As the details of Lazhar’s own life come into focus, his journey and that of his charges begin to dovetail in mournful, deeply meaningful ways.

Fellag, an Algerian comedian, plays the title character in the Oscar-nominated Monsieur Lazhar, who steps in to teach a class of middle school students after tragedy has struck their classroom.

The film begins in the dead of winter, follows his work in the classroom all the way through until summer. During that time, he — and we — get to know the students, who are generally cheerful and well-behaved, and get on well with their new teacher. They are assumed to be traumatized by their teacher’s suicide, and a psychologist is assigned to spend closed-door sessions with the class. We, and Monsieur Lazhar, are closed out of these sessions, but Lazhar on his own tells the students some gentle truths and assures them it wasn’t their fault. For this and other transgressions, he is criticized by the principal; to follow the rules, a teacher seems hardly allowed to be human.

Sophie Nelisse-Monsieur LazharMonsieur Lazhar is an honest simple film that nicely balances melancholy with humor. The story of how an Algerian substitute teacher in French-speaking Montreal and his middle-school class help each other confront the presence of death in life, this film deals almost casually with a range of issues and themes, handling with a light and even affectionate touch weighty subjects like grief, guilt, community and love. It’s difficult doing what “Monsieur Lazhar”does, conveying the delicate reality of human emotions in a way that engages without being overdone. The film delivers an affective message of compassion without any kind of sweeping, artificial sentimentality – a welcome deviation in the library of teacher-student films. What is most effective about “Monsieur Lazhar” is the natural, unforced but unmistakable way these two sides of the coin, the teacher and the students, help each other cope with the different but related issues of memory, regret and healing they face.The title character in “Monsieur Lazhar” is powerfully embodied by Fellag, an Algerian theater director and actor known for his one-man shows, who has lived in Paris since 1995. Fellag delivers an understated performance that miraculously brings forth the humor in all this mournful subject matter.

Monsieur Lazhar:             Written and directed by Philippe Falardeau, based on the stage play by Evelyne de la Chenelière; director of photography, Ronald Plante; edited by Stéphane Lafleur; music by Martin Léon; production design by Emmanuel Fréchette; costumes by Francesca Chamberland; produced by Luc Déry and Kim McCraw; released by Music Box Films. In French, with English subtitles.

WITH: Fellag (Bachir Lazhar), Sophie Nélisse (Alice), Émilien Néron (Simon), Danielle Proulx (Mrs. Vaillancourt), Brigitte Poupart (Claire), Louis Champagne (Janitor), Jules Philip (Gaston), Francine Ruel (Mrs. Dumas) and Sophie Sanscartier (Audrée).

Pras on World Films: THE SCRET OF THE GRAIN (“La Graine et le Mulet”)

Movies about food and family have become a genre unto themselves and, in many cases, sadly clichéd. But there’s a freshness to Abdellatif Kechiche’s The Secret of the Grain (a.k.a. La graine et la mulet), the deserving winner of four César awards. Kechiche  (L’Esquive) brings an earnestness and rigor and cultural authenticity to his intergenerational drama, but more importantly, he captures the emotional rhythms of an extended family at its best (love and support) and worst (pettiness and neglect).

Slimane Beiji, the sad, still center of “The Secret of the Grain,” Abdellatif Kechiche’s bustling and brilliant new film, might be described as an accidental patriarch. A stubborn, taciturn immigrant from Tunisia, Slimane (Habib Boufares) has spent 35 years working in the shipyards of Sète, a rough little French port city on the Mediterranean coast. The other members of his large, cantankerous family — his former wife, Souad (Bouraouïa Marzouk), and their assorted children and grandchildren — live mostly in a battered high-rise housing project.

Slimane, meanwhile, keeps a modest room in the blue-collar hotel run by his lover, Latifa (Hatika Karaoui), and her 20-year-old daughter, Rym (the amazing Hafsia Herzi), on whom he dotes as if she were his own. The chief token of his benevolence is the fish Slimane collects from his fisherman buddies and dutifully delivers on his motorbike to the important women in his life: Souad; his older daughter, Karima (Faridah Benkhetache); and Latifa. Their freezers are overflowing with the mullet that is, in Tunisian tradition, served with couscous, the grain of this film’s title. When Souad cooks up a batch to feed various kids, friends and in-laws, she puts aside a serving for Slimane, who eats it in the spartan quarters he shares with a semimetaphorical caged bird. The kids tease their mother that Slimane’s fish-delivering visits and her cooking of couscous and fish for him signify an undying love.

These are the two delicacies—specialties of the house—that send the French-Arab family into ecstasy and encourage recently downsized sixty-one-year-old Slimane Beiji (Habib Boufares) to open a portside restaurant on a junked ship.

Since Slimane’s hopeful project of leaving the restaurant as a legacy for his children hinges largely on the celebrated cooking of Souad, Latifa is hurt and wary the closer Slimane gets to achieving the dream (it doesn’t help her ego that she’s a bad cook). Rym, on the other hand, gives unconditional support to Slimane, serving as his translator and business associate as they navigate the terrible bureaucratic hurdles endemic to opening a restaurant (Rym also acknowledges the greatness of the food, saying, “When there’s couscous like this, the world disappears”). More family drama comes from the worst-kept-secret of Majid’s philandering (despite having a newborn), which makes an emotional mess of his Russian wife Julia (Alice Houri). The issues converge in the extended climax that is the film’s third act: a test evening for the restaurant that has the city’s movers and shakers—the ones who can make or break the restaurant—impatiently awaiting the couscous and fish they’ve heard so much about.

The richness of “The Secret of the Grain” lies in the close, tireless, enthusiastic attention it pays to the most mundane daily tasks, especially those involving food.operators, among others.  In France, where the movie won four César awards earlier this year, the secret is omitted, and the film is known simply as “La Graine et le Mulet.”

Though the story lightly touches on issues of Arab integration in the notion of struggling to get approval to take an open spot on the coveted quai de la République (the waterfront of the Republic), the film’s engaging textures mostly come back to food and family. Despite many of the actors being non-professionals, the characters are thoroughly believable. Houri has an amazing tear-laced rant about Majid, and Herzi astonishes with a heroic belly-dance, but it’s not only the pyrotechnics that impress: playing a role intended for Kechiche’s real-life father (who passed away before production), Boufares makes Slimane’s quiet determination resonate, especially as it grows quietly fretful. The soul of the picture is the father’s sacrifice for his family, and when the film, as it must, comes to an end after two and a half hours, you won’t be ready; the bond made to this family makes its sudden absence feel downright brutal.

Mr. Kechiche started out as an actor and has established himself, after directing three features (“La Faute à Voltaire” and “L’Esquive” before this one), as one of the most vital and interesting filmmakers working in France today. In “The Secret of the Grain” he immerses us in the hectic, tender, sometimes painful details of work and domesticity. The camera bobs and fidgets in crowded rooms full of noisy people, so that your senses are flooded with the warmth and stickiness of Slimane and Souad’s family circle. The scenes, though they feel improvised, at times almost accidentally recorded, have a syncopated authenticity for which the sturdy old word realism seems inadequate.

Hafsia Herzi, left, and Habib Boufares in “The Secret of the Grain.”

Not many directors would linger so long, for example, over a toilet-training-related battle of wills between a mother and her 2-year-old, and then pause later to observe a discussion of the same subject among a group of adults at a party. But when Mr. Kechiche does just that, you may wonder why so few have bothered before. After all, the messy particulars of child rearing preoccupy every family in every culture and provide an inexhaustible vein of humor, anxiety and contention.

And the richness of “The Secret of the Grain” — the secret, as it were, of its deep and complex flavor — lies in the close, tireless, enthusiastic attention it pays to the most mundane daily tasks, especially those involving food.

The depth of Mr. Kechiche’s humanism and his subtle insights into the political dimensions of ordinary experience link his film to the great works of late-period Neo-Realism, even if his anarchic methods have more in common with those of a post-’60s skeptical realist like Mike Leigh than with the old Italian masters. “The Secret of the Grain” is in some ways the descendant of a movie like “Rocco and His Brothers,” Luchino Visconti’s long, gloriously novelistic 1960 melodrama about a family of migrants that travels from southern Italy to work in the factories of the north.

In the background of “The Secret of the Grain” is a similar migration that began in the 1960s, when men and women like Slimane and Souad left the newly liberated North African French colonies to seek their fortunes in metropolitan France, a country they regarded as both benefactor and oppressor. In the decades since, France has reluctantly claimed them and their children as citizens, even as it has stigmatized and marginalized them, and this mutual ambivalence is the implicit subject of this movie and its unstated context. (Mr. Kechiche was born in Tunis in 1960.)

But as he did in “L’Esquive,” in which the exalted idiom of Classical French literature collided and commingled with the polyglot vernacular of the modern French suburbs, Mr. Kechiche declines to dole out obvious, easily assimilated lessons.

Life is just too complicated, too unpredictable, too hard and too fascinating. Even as Slimane’s story is one of frustration and unfulfilled ambition — after his hours at the shipyard are cut back, he pursues the quixotic dream of converting an abandoned boat into a dockside couscous restaurant — “The Secret of the Grain” bursts with exuberance and irrepressible sensuality. This is mostly thanks to the women in the movie, who through charm, guile and sheer force of will turn the austere fable of their melancholy paterfamilias into a party. It is not that they are naturally carefree but rather that their cares are so tightly woven into their lives that the only practical alternative to despair is an unruly, militant joy.

Karima, Souad and Rym are at once Slimane’s foils — their bodies are as curvy as his is gaunt, while their frank, abundant talk serves as counterpoint to his decorous silence — and the pillars on which he leans for support. They protect his dignity by declining to point out just how much he depends on them, and allowing him to believe that the opposite is true.

The pathos of Slimane’s story (as well as the accomplishment of Mr. Boufares’s performance) arises partly from the understanding that this man, so committed to the idea of his own strength and resilience, is in the end so fragile.

To put it in slightly different terms, you could say that Slimane’s tragedy is that, having worked so hard for so long, he is left with so little. The couscous restaurant represents his last stand, his grand gesture of protest against a hard fate, and its opening night, teetering on the tightrope between triumph and calamity, is Mr. Kechiche’s tour de force.

An entire family chronicle, along with four decades of French social and economic history, is recapitulated as a lavish, hectic dinner, complete with music and belly dancing. It will leave you stunned and sated, having savored an intimate and sumptuous epic of elation and defeat, jealousy and tenderness, life and death, grain and fish.

Written and directed by Abdellatif Kechiche; director of photography, Lubomir Bakchev; edited by Ghalya Lacroix and Camille Toubkis; produced by Claude Berri; released by IFC Films.

WITH: Habib Boufares (Slimane), Hafsia Herzi (Rym), Faridah Benkhetache (Karima), Abdelhamid Aktouche (Hamid), Bouraouïa Marzouk (Souad), Hatika Karaoui (Latifa) and Alice Houri (Julia).

Title: The Secret of the Grain
Running Time: 151 MinutesStatus: Released
Country: France
Genre: Drama, Family, Foreign