From French-Canadian writer-director Philippe Falardeau, a filmmaker whose work is seldom seen outside of the Toronto International Film Festival, comes the Oscar-nominated Monsieur Lazhar, a tender, evocative film about how people of different ages and ethnic backgrounds can bridge generational gaps and learn from each other when they are united in a need to overcome grief. It is simple but eloquent, disturbing but humorous, and always gripping.
Expanded from a one-character play that was a huge theatrical success in Canada, Monsieur Lazhar is about a middle-aged Algerian immigrant named Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag) seeking political asylum in Quebec when he lands an important position in a Montreal elementary school to replace a beloved teacher who has just committed suicide in her classroom. Despite reservations, the overworked and distraught principal hires him based on his claim to 19 years of teaching experience in his native country. He has no idea what challenges he’s in for—traumatized children, a faculty as much in need of counseling as their students, and only one psychologist to address all of their problems. Generous, patient and caring, the new teacher works hard to win them over, focusing special attention on two of his unhappiest pupils—the 10-year-old boy who discovered the body of his teacher hanging from the ceiling and a girl who misinterprets the event and resents her classmate intensely, provoking him to violence. But the reason for his sad eyes and warm smile becomes evident as Mr. Lazhar’s hurdles at work are exacerbated by his own personal problems—the recent loss of his own children back home in Algeria, burned to death in a fire after his wife wrote a book criticizing the government, and the revelation that in Algeria he was a restaurant owner, not a teacher. He has lied about his credentials, placing his future in jeopardy with Quebecois authorities, but his faith in humanity remains undaunted. His wife was the teacher, persecuted for her political views and targeted for death, and as the days progress it becomes clear that Mr. Lazhar is using her humanitarian teaching methods to help others. It works. Between curing their nosebleeds and migraines, enduring their pranks and sharing their amusement at his broken English, he gradually earns their trust and wins them over. By disregarding the uptight pedagogical methods of the school board and encouraging his students to share their feelings, Mr. Lazhar learns to open up his own heart, face his own fears and confront his own grief, long hidden and dormant. Ignoring the warnings of the principal, he tries to reach the children by channeling his own personal experience with death and avoid deportation from Canada at the same time.
So many films about education present teachers and students as adversaries. Among the many strengths in Monsieur Lazhar is the way it unites them on the same team as they seek answers to heartbreaking questions about death. Considering the subject matter, it could have been a dour and very slow film indeed. But whether Mr. Lazhar is clashing with the baffled parents and academic robots who are barriers to the children’s emotional progress, or appealing to the compassion of fellow teachers, writer-director Falardeau fills each scene with so much movement and character revelation that you are always aware of the subtext. The movie fares best in its comparatively smaller moments, with continuing emphasis on Mr. Lazhar’s moving attempts to reach his pupils (i.e., breaking the rules by occasionally touching them with a show of affection they are missing at home, listening to their confessions, and encouraging them to express their feelings) on a level that extends beyond dictionaries and verb conjugations. The performances are perfect, the teacher’s idealism balances nicely against old-school cynicism, and the children bring an accuracy to their words and actions that never seems like acting, while Monsieur Lazhar builds hope in the face of tragedy and sheds new light on the question of what is truth and how we find it.
Running Time 94 minutes
Written and Directed by Philippe Falardeau
Starring Mohamed Fellag, Sophie Nélisse and Émilien Néron