Quebec and Iran are powerhouses in world cinema.
Some of the best films of the last few decades have come from Quebec (Léolo, Jesus of Montreal, Incendies, Maelström) and Iran (Taste of Cherry, Children of Heaven, Gabbeh, Where is My Friend’s House?). Montreal’s Denys Arcand (winner of the foreign language academy award in 2003 for The Barbarian Invasions) and Tehran’s Abbas Kiarostami have earned international reputations as film directors.
Philippe Falardeau’s Monsieur Lazhar and Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation continue the tradition of great filmmaking in their respective cultures. Both were nominated for the best foreign language film for 2011. A Separation won. Both are superbly acted and photographed.
Monsieur Lazhar is a quiet meditation on loss and how children cope with it. A Separation is a study of struggling human beings trying to maintain a measure of dignity under difficult circumstances. Beleaguered and overburdened, the characters deftly maneuver through thickets of religious and cultural constraints.
A Separation takes place inan urban jungle: streets clogged with traffic, screeching horns, space constricted and suffocating, heat, internally and externally, rising. You can’t breathe without someone knowing what you’ve just eaten. Intimacy is forced upon you. Monsieur Lazhar, on the other hand, seems to enact scenes from a Jean-Pierre Lemieux painting, vast emotional distances between one person and another, particularly children and adults, winter setting in, space in abundance.
Monsieur Lazhar, based on a one-person play, is a minimalist production: a teacher, a principal, a few students. Minimalist like an Agnes Martin painting, it moves slowly and restrictedly within a few streets of Montreal.
A Separation is a maximalist production teeming with life and complicated entanglements.
“Daily life is a cycle of waiting, nagging, negotiating and looking for a place to park, much of it carried out with frayed and weary decorum. Even when everything seems to be falling apart, people try to mind their manners…” according to A.O. Scott in The New York Times.
In the opening scene of Monsieur Lazhar, a sixth grader at a Montreal middle school catches a glimpse of the hanging body of a popular teacher. He bolts from the scene. Into the trauma, a world of deep feelings and few words, a warm-hearted Algerian teacher, Bachir Lazhar, offers emotional support with his direct honesty and willingness to listen. “Don’t try to find a meaning in Martine’s death; there isn’t one,” he opines to his students.
In the opening scenes of A Separation you feel the tension between a mother and father quarrelling over the future of a child; the father wants her to remain with him in Tehran since he is unprepared to abandon his live-in father who suffers from dementia and the mother wants her to go abroad with her to seek new opportunities. The quarrel is brought to court for adjudication.
In A Separation, there is no black or white, only an overwhelming grey. That’s its integrity. With Monsieur Lazhar, the integrity lies in its honesty and the recognition that the classroom “is a place of friendship, of work, of courtesy, a place of life.”
– By J.S. Porter
The trailers to Monsieur Lazhar and The Separation, below: