February 17, 2012. Movies Reviewed: Monsieur Lazhar, Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness

Posted in Academy Awards, Canada, Cultural Mining, Death, documentary, Drama, Movies, Musical, Quebec, Suicide, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on February 20, 2012

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies, for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, genre and mainstream movies, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

I’m back again…

This week I’m looking at two movies about men trying to preserve a culture. One is a drama about an Algerian refugee working as a schoolteacher in Quebec who turns toward his French childhood education for solace; and the other is a documentary about a sophisticated Yiddish writer who turned toward memories of his childhood in a small village as the inspiration for many of his stories.

Monsieur Lazhar
Dir: Philippe Falardeau
Two public school kids, Simon and Alice (Sophie Nélisse and Émilien Néron) make a shocking discovery one morning. Their teacher hanged herself the night before in their classroom. So now there’s a class without a teacher, a whole bunch of kids recovering from the trauma, and no one willing to take her place. So in walks Bachir Lazhar (Fellag) to the principle’s office and offers his services. He says he taught for 19 years in Algeria and would be honoured to take over the class. And for lack of an alternative, he’s the new teacher.

But he’s a recent newcomer to Canada, trying to qualify for refugee status after a horrific event back in Algeria. He’s recovering from one trauma while the kids in the class are getting over another one. He was raised in an Algeria that had been annexed by France, so he’s steeped in a lost culture, in a country on the brink of violent collapse. The kids don’t get him.

He regiments the desks in neat rows – no circles for him; and he does old-school stuff — like reading Balzac for dictee – and making the kids memorize conjugations and recite them in class.

He doesn’t understand all the new rules. No hitting students – in fact no touching students at all, anywhere, ever. Never talk about the teacher’s death – leave that to the psychologist. But the kids are clearly ridden with guilt, and Bachir wants to get through to them. Maybe by letting them lose their baggage he can release some of his own.

But can he get through to them with his old-fashioned, rigid and formal ways? Will he purge his own loss and let them – especially Simon And Alice – recover from theirs?

Monsieur Lazhar is a really good, complex, and subtle movie (nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar.) The French actor Fellag manages to convey Bachir’s grief and compassion while remaining reserved, formal and secretive. It’s also quite funny – its not a drag-you-down movie. It was directed by Philippe Falardeau, who also made another great movie just a few years ago, also about a troubled kid in Quebec: C’est pas moi, je te jure! You should try to catch that one, too. Falardeau is amazing at capturing kids on film, with complete characters. Monsieur Lazhar is nominated for an Academy Award for Best Film in a Foreign Language, and for Genie Awards for Best Picture, Director (Falardeau) , Actor (Fellag), Supporting Actress (Sophie Nélisse), Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Music,  and Sound.

Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness
Dir: Joseph Dorman

Sholem Aleichem was the penname of a Yiddish writer who lived in the Pale of Settlement in Tsarist Russia. This is the long but narrow area stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea where Jews were permitted to live. Sholem Aleichem – a pen name meaning Mr how-do-you-do — wrote the classic tales of Tevye the milkman and the others in the village of Kasrilevka. He’s best known today because his stories were adapted into the famous musical Fiddler on the Roof. But he was also one of the pioneers who attempted to turned a looked-down-upon vernacular language, Yiddish, into a font of literature and high culture.

What I had never heard before, and which the movie shows, is that he was a really interesting character, that goes against the homey, nostalgic stereotype of his writing. He was a dandy, a dilettante, and a stock market gambler in Kiev, discussing poetry in cafes and squandering a small fortune.

This excellent documentary tears away the mythos of the renowned writer and exposes both his dark and embarrassing moments as well as his unknown triumphs. It uses black and white photos, playbills, posters, and even an actual audio recording of the writer voice, along with found footage and snapshots from the era to set the mood. Most interesting to me is the way the documentary situates the author, not just as some independent hero, but as one character in a broader political, historical and sociological context.

Monsieur Lazhar is playing now, and Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Dark opens next week in Toronto. And of course the documentary, Puppet opens on the 17th. Also coming soon in Toronto and Vancouver is a series of Kabuki performances captured on film, featuring the legendary onnagata actor, Tamasaburo, who plays only female roles, in the Heron Maiden. Check out the Japan Foundation for more information.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM, and on my web site CulturalMining.com.

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