Culture | Canadian film makes a bid for the big leagues

As any TA in any 200-level Arts class at McGill will undoubtedly repeat, it’s not a good idea to start an essay with a generalization. This is great advice, but I want to betray this rule for brevity’s sake and just get this out in the open: since the dawn of humanity – or at least cinema – Canada has always had a complicated relationship with the United States – or at least Hollywood. Many would argue that since Canadian talent, whether creative or performative, can be found in most Hollywood films, a national cinema is hardly real. As the argument goes, since many of these films are actually shot in Vancouver’s school yards, Toronto’s streets, or Montreal’s studios, the wall that distinguishes between Canadian and Hollywood cinema is crumbling, if it ever really existed.

And yet, there comes a time every year when this distinction matters the most, when the country as a whole rushes to the newsstand to see if Canada might finally “score the big one.” The time I am referring to is, of course, the Tuesday that just passed, in which the list of Academy Awards nominees was released. Whether you like their selections or not, there is no doubt that the Oscars can be as grandiose as the Olympics to cinephiles, especially when a film from one’s country enters the “Best Foreign Language” category. Such is the case for Canada for the second consecutive year as Montreal filmmaker Philippe Falardeau’s Monsieur Lazhar enters the race.

Having already gained domestic recognition – in the form of a Genie Award – for his 2006 film Congorama, Falardeau is now drawing the gaze of movie buffs around the world. Monsieur Lazhar revisits many of the same themes and concerns as his penultimate C’est pas moi, je le jure!. Namely, the film deals with childhood trauma and coming to terms with the reality of death, but with a decidedly more mature approach. Whereas the opening scene of C’est pas moi, je le jure! semi-comically depicts a ten year old boy attempting to hang himself for no apparent reason while Patrick Watson’s twangy guitar coos in the background, Monsieur Lazhar opens with a schoolboy’s discovery of his teacher’s suspended body in his classroom. The film follows the school’s replacement teacher Bachir Lazhar, an Algerian refugee who attempts to guide the children through this traumatic period. As you can already imagine, the film falls into the trap of one of those “the teacher learned as much from his students as they learned from him” narratives, but shies away from oversentimentality just enough to be taken seriously. The question on everyone’s lips: could this be what it takes for Falardeau to score Hollywood’s prestigious prize?

In this writer’s humble opinion, not a chance. By all means, Monsieur Lazhar is a well-made film that grapples with difficult subject matters while shedding some light on current social issues both in Quebec and abroad, and is thus perfect fodder for the Academy. But the film fails to reach a level that that will earn it anything more than a nod, something that last year’s Canadian nominee, Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies, had, despite its losing. The last and only time a Canadian took this award was in 2003 with The Barbarian Invasions by Denys Arcand, a veteran director at the top of his game who had received two previous nominations. Falardeau is proving to be a filmmaker to keep an eye on, but his latest effort lacks the “masterpiece” quality of a work like Arcand’s.

While Monsieur Lazhar is, like so many movies at the Oscars, a filler within an essentially pre-decided category – all signs point to Iran’s A Separation, an internationally-recognized critical success, taking the honour – its nomination nonetheless indicates that Hollywood recognizes Canada’s film industry as a force to be reckoned with, whether this industry is truly distinct from its own or not.