I saw a decent little Canadian movie a couple of weeks ago called “Monsieur Lazhar.” It’s the story of an Algerian immigrant who becomes a substitute elementary teacher following a tragedy. It has many of the familiar elements of the classroom genre: the fish out of water teacher; romantic/racial/coming of age tensions between students; the overlap of home, society and school – many of the themes we’ve seen from “Blackboard Jungle” (ooh, we’re dating ourselves here) “To Sir With Love” “Dead Poet’s Society” “Dangerous Minds” and so on…
And it tells its story reasonably well; the characters are winsome; the issues compelling. There are no easy, stock answers – just believable individuals caught in and trying to make their way through complex thickets of race, culture, mortality and generational divides.
But despite all these virtues, the movie was, to me, pretty unsatisfying. I walked out of the theater feeling like I had engaged with these people and their issues, but somehow that didn’t seem to be enough. It’s not just that (spoiler alert) things didn’t get all tidied up with a happily-ever-after resolution – I have a fairly high tolerance for untidied-upness in my viewing and reading.
It was something else that left me feeling flat.
The characters seemed awash, drifting in a large sea of issues beyond their control. They’re victims, pawns to whom life happens. There are brief glimpses of nobility and even grace, but they are fleeting and the characters don’t seem to change or learn from them. I thought of the Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson movie from a few years ago, “Lost in Translation” where the two characters drift in and out of each other’s life in Tokyo, strangers in a strange land, and ultimately to each other.
So what is it that’s unsettling and unsatisfying about these movies? Why do I yearn for something “redemptive” like the nobility of grace under pressure or, at least, that characters would learn and change? Have I just been “Hollywoodized” to always expect and “need” happy endings?
I don’t think so, at least, not completely.
I think there is a yearning that transcends acculturation in all of us for larger themes such as redemption, the noble struggle, for something that points beyond ourselves.
Questioning why he has been given the dangerous mission to destroy the great ring of power in “The Lord of the Rings” Frodo is told by Gandalf that the question is not why such things befall us, but what is to be our response to them.
There’s something in that. There are bigger issues: good and evil exist and we have choices and they matter. We are not static entities, frozen by circumstances beyond our control or influence.
The reason why I long for these motifs to be expressed in culture is, I believe, because they reflect what’s really true. It’s not just wishful thinking. Why would we even conceive that things could be different if, in fact, they couldn’t?
So, I’m going to continue to look for, and be fed by, those visions of what’s really true.