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NPR Arts & Life

Blame The Movies As We Mourn? Or Turn To Them For Comfort?

After a classroom tragedy, the title character of <em>Monsieur Lazhar</em> (played by the Algerian actor Fellag) comforts mourning students.
After a classroom tragedy, the title character of <em>Monsieur Lazhar</em> (played by the Algerian actor Fellag) comforts mourning students.

In light of last Friday's mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, all explanations and ruminations for why Adam Lanza opened fire are on the cable-news pundits' table. Was it the lack of gun control? Untreated mental illness? Or was it an Aurora-style pop-culture revenge fantasy writ large? Did Hollywood's culture of raging, gun-slinging entertainment help fuel the mayhem? Nobody knows the shooter's motive, and yet the conversation and pontification remains incessant and unabated.

The entertainment industry has made no sweeping admission of guilt, nor has it been asked to do as much by the victims' families or by legislators. But this week's canceled red-carpet premieres and earnest offerings of song on shows like Saturday Night Live and The Voicedo point to some soul-searching on the part of our entertainers.

On Wednesday's All Things Considered, NPR's Mandalit del Barco reported on how Hollywood often pulls back after mass shootings, postponing release dates and adding new warning labels to crime procedurals. But as Mandalit reported, studio executives rarely ask more fundamental questions about the ethics of selling violence as entertainment. From Quentin Tarantino's slavery-revenge saga Django Unchained to Katherine Bigelow's critically acclaimed Zero Dark Thirty, some of this season's highest-profile releases offer their greatest rewards in the form of stylized violence.

But if filmmakers can glorify (and perhaps inspire) brutality, can't they also offer us the opposite — an outlet for reflection and healing following an act of brutality?

Monsieur Lazhar is one such example. It was released earlier this year, nominated for an Oscar, and in its limited release cycle was most certainly lost in the pop-culture grinder. I discovered it by accident over the weekend, avoiding the too-sad news stream by browsing through Netflix's somewhat limited online library. I couldn't have predicted that this quiet, meditative film is actually an eerily prophetic and immensely relevant story — especially in the aftermath of the tragedy at Sandy Hook.

The film charts one year at an elementary school in Montreal, where the quiet students at the center of the film are carrying immensely turbulent and traumatic pain under their stoic demeanor. Their beloved teacher has committed suicide; they discover her hanging body over their school desks.

It's not an inviting plot device for a work of entertainment, but for filmmaker Philippe Falardeau it's a window to explore the complex relationship between children and violence, teachers and students — and, more important, between pain and healing.

The title character is an Algerian immigrant who enters the story as a man in search of work and relevance. Monsieur Lazhar replaces the deceased teacher and gradually discovers that the other adults at the school have remained cold and distant from their students' pain. The classroom has been painted afresh, the belongings of their teacher stored far from view, and yet it's obvious that the students never grieved.

Against the advice of his superiors to avoid discussing the suicide, Monsieur Lazhar insists the students explore it in their work and in their friendships. Of course what the audience learns through the course of the film is that beyond the classroom, the soft-spoken Bachir Lazhar is recovering from his own pain. He's the sole survivor of a brutal attack on his family in Algeria, an asylum-seeker searching for a new beginning in the Canadian winter. In that fascinating intersection across cultures, the film explores how the pain of varying individuals can meet and transform into something redemptive and beautiful.

Monsieur Lazhar is just one film in the hundreds that lit up movie screens this year. But in the current debate over the correlation between pop culture and violence, it's another bit of evidence of the power of cinema — of art — as catharsis. It's a quiet reminder that for every filmmaker who traffics in the theater of violence, there are those whose work we need to help us make sense of the senseless.

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