Films about teachers and students are commonly inspirational melodramas about overcoming adversity inside and outside the classroom. The teacher is usually a newcomer to the school and initially dismissed by the students, but over the course of 90 minutes or so they wind up touching each other’s lives and all that mushy stuff. It’s a formula audiences are comfortable with. Writer-director Philippe Falardeau‘s Monsieur Lazhar breaks this mold and delivers a haunting look at grief, compassion, and boundaries through the eyes of both children and adults, while also examining the bureaucratic problems in contemporary teaching. Mr. Falardeau’s fourth feature film, adapted from a one-person play by Evelyne de la Chenelière was Canada’s entry in the 2011 foreign language Oscar and nominated for best foreign language film.
In an opening scene of the film it’s Simon’s day to pick up cartons of milk and deliver them to his Montreal fourth-grade classroom before the school day begins. Only one other student sees this before the teachers usher all the students back into the playground. This incident, reported in a Quebec newspaper, is the inspiration for Bachir Lazhar (Algerian writer and actor Fellag) to present himself at the school principal’s office and volunteer to teach the class. Bachir Lazhar is a refugee from Algeria where he taught primary school for 19 years.
The principal at the school is Mme. Vaillancourt (Danielle Proulx), who like most school administrators is rigid in conforming to the rules. Hiring Monsieur Lazhar is a bit of an excursion for her, but he is a well-spoken, presentable man and makes a good impression. The film chronicles events in the classroom throughout the year, as Lazhar tries to help his students cope with feelings of abandonment and loss, while balancing educational policy that requires teachers to relate to children at a physical and emotional distance. The students take to him fast though and as days go by we learn more details about Lazhar’s personal tragedies and loss. Like the children he’s now responsible for, Lazhar too is in need of a safe haven. As the details of Lazhar’s own life come into focus, his journey and that of his charges begin to dovetail in mournful, deeply meaningful ways.
The film begins in the dead of winter, follows his work in the classroom all the way through until summer. During that time, he — and we — get to know the students, who are generally cheerful and well-behaved, and get on well with their new teacher. They are assumed to be traumatized by their teacher’s suicide, and a psychologist is assigned to spend closed-door sessions with the class. We, and Monsieur Lazhar, are closed out of these sessions, but Lazhar on his own tells the students some gentle truths and assures them it wasn’t their fault. For this and other transgressions, he is criticized by the principal; to follow the rules, a teacher seems hardly allowed to be human.
Monsieur Lazhar is an honest simple film that nicely balances melancholy with humor. The story of how an Algerian substitute teacher in French-speaking Montreal and his middle-school class help each other confront the presence of death in life, this film deals almost casually with a range of issues and themes, handling with a light and even affectionate touch weighty subjects like grief, guilt, community and love. It’s difficult doing what “Monsieur Lazhar”does, conveying the delicate reality of human emotions in a way that engages without being overdone. The film delivers an affective message of compassion without any kind of sweeping, artificial sentimentality – a welcome deviation in the library of teacher-student films. What is most effective about “Monsieur Lazhar” is the natural, unforced but unmistakable way these two sides of the coin, the teacher and the students, help each other cope with the different but related issues of memory, regret and healing they face.The title character in “Monsieur Lazhar” is powerfully embodied by Fellag, an Algerian theater director and actor known for his one-man shows, who has lived in Paris since 1995. Fellag delivers an understated performance that miraculously brings forth the humor in all this mournful subject matter.
Monsieur Lazhar: Written and directed by Philippe Falardeau, based on the stage play by Evelyne de la Chenelière; director of photography, Ronald Plante; edited by Stéphane Lafleur; music by Martin Léon; production design by Emmanuel Fréchette; costumes by Francesca Chamberland; produced by Luc Déry and Kim McCraw; released by Music Box Films. In French, with English subtitles.
WITH: Fellag (Bachir Lazhar), Sophie Nélisse (Alice), Émilien Néron (Simon), Danielle Proulx (Mrs. Vaillancourt), Brigitte Poupart (Claire), Louis Champagne (Janitor), Jules Philip (Gaston), Francine Ruel (Mrs. Dumas) and Sophie Sanscartier (Audrée).