You know, more and more, Hollywood politics are starting to piss me off. Seriously. It’s frustrating as all get out, especially when it comes to the Best Foreign Film award. Most of the time, it’s given out more as a sort of diplomacy act rather than actually going to the best film that came from a country that’s just not America.
It is for this reason that I’m irritated that A Separation is getting so much buzz—while it’s a good movie, I personally don’t think it’s really exceptional, and if the universe were a fair place, the Oscar would be going to Monsieur Lazhar, a phenomenal little movie coming to us from French Canada. It is everything that its Iranian “better” is—subtle, understated, and esoteric—and much much more, providing a stupendous, simple conclusion that provides an emotional release in a way that A Separation simply doesn’t. It is beautiful, and it is heartwarming and heartbreaking, and it is a must-see.
The story is elegant and sombre in its construction—in Quebec, a middle school teacher hangs herself after-hours on a Wednesday in her classroom. Monsieur Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag) is her replacement. The plot revolves around the students and the staff at this unlucky little school trying to move on with their lives after this terrible incident, and somewhat unwittingly, Lazhar is central to this healing process. He, however, has a difficult past of his own—he’s an Algerian immigrant who came to Canada under difficult circumstances (which I won’t reveal, as it’s an excellent part of the movie), and the intertwining of his personal troubles and those of the school is elegant and brilliantly presented.
The script is already very good, explaining enough for the audience to fully understand, so long as they put forth a little effort—as always in the case of successful writer/directors, I give my props to Philippe Falardeau for creating a world with characters that are beautifully flawed, as we all are, and a conflict that feels naturally important, making the audience care about the outcome of this tragic tale.
However, almost even more wonderful than the excellent writing and direction is the exquisite acting. Going into the film, I was more than a little hesitant, if only because movies with child actors are so often hit-or-miss, and most fall prey to the latter. However, the kids are, well, amazing. Seriously. While they’re all fantastic, the two child leads, Sophie Nélisse as the brilliant, adorable Alice and Émilien Néron as the emotionally-damaged Simon lead the cast effortlessly. As someone who tried to break into acting as a kid (yeah, yeah, don’t ask), I was awestruck with (and more than a little jealous of) the grace both of these young children effortlessly brought to their characters. Leading these talented youngsters is Fellag, who is so damn good it’s scary. He has an expressive, open face, one that he
utilizes to convey a wide range of emotions that instill both mirth and sorrow. It’s just…there are no weak links, and with a cast that is predominantly children, Monsieur Lazhar
is a fine example of the great heights that can be reached, even by the youngest of actors.
Technically, the film is not really exceptional, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s not an art film, it’s not playing with cinematic form, and so Falardeau takes a minimalist approach to maximize the effectiveness of the story and cast. That being said, the score is amazing. I want it. It epitomizes the film, for it is simple, and that’s all it has to be.
So when I say that it is a crime that this film will not win for Best Foreign Film simply because of its country of origin, I mean it wholeheartedly. It is a movie I can imagine watching over and over again, which is something I cannot say of A Separation. I love this film.