In “Monsieur Lazhar” writer-director Philippe Falardeau fashions a quietly affecting character study from a play by Evelyne de la Cheneliere. But the film also skillfully integrates issues concerning immigration and education into the title character’s story.
Mohamed Fellag plays fastidious, tightly controlled Bashir Lazhar, who has fled from an Algeria wracked by terrorism and government oppression to seek asylum in Quebec. He’s haunted by the deaths of the wife and children he left behind and had hoped to bring to Canada as well. A former restaurateur who lives a quiet life in the city as he awaits the decision of the immigration authorities whether he’ll be allowed to stay, he forges a CV to indicate that he’d been a schoolteacher back home (his activist wife’s occupation) in order to apply for a job as a replacement on the faculty of an elementary school. A substitute is urgently needed for a class whose teacher had hanged herself in her classroom, and the principal (Danielle Proulx) makes an impromptu decision to hire him.
Though sidebars deal parenthetically with other matters—Lazhar’s immigration hearings, a possible relationship with another teacher—most of the film is devoted to the classroom, with its bustling company of eleven- and twelve-year old boys and girls. A half-dozen or so of the children are nicely characterized in broad strokes (a boy who gets migraines, another oversized lad with learning problems). And the contrast between Lazhar’s expectations and the students’ learning level is humorously treated, especially in an initial dictation exercise in which he uses an excerpt from Balzac that’s far beyond their comprehension. There’s also a contrast between his strict, quasi-European instructional technique and the other teachers’ most animated, colorful methods.
But hanging over the class, even as the bond between teacher and students grows warmer, is the memory of their former instructor’s suicide—made all the worse by the fact that two of the children actually saw the body. They’re the ones who get the greatest attention from Lazhar—Alice (Sophie Nelisse), a gifted, sensitive girl whose mother is frequently away on her airline job and who delivers a poignant essay about her reaction to the tragedy, and Simon (Emilien Neron), a clearly troubled boy whose behavior grows increasingly antisocial. Lazhar’s attempts to connect with both of them are thwarted by administrative policies that prohibit him from discussing his predecessor’s death with them (only certified psychologists are allowed to do that) and forbid even the most innocuous physical contact with the kids, whether it be a disciplinary tap on the head or a sympathetic hug. (The complaints of rigid parents also take their toll.) Nonetheless the cause of Simon’s disruptive conduct is eventually revealed, even as details of Lazhar’s own tragic history emerge.
One can imagine this story being presented in broad, sentimental strokes, but Falardeau will brook none of that. His film is refined and reticent—so much so that some might consider its restraint a flaw. The same applies to Fellag’s performance, which avoids easy gestures for more gentle effects. But it’s the picture’s refusal to opt for the obvious that gives it such devastating power. It doesn’t descend, even at the most inviting moments, to identifying some characters as mere villains. And though Lazhar acts heroically by any standard, he’s not a simple, one-note figure either. (After all, his fish-out-of-water situation leads to his making some mistakes, including the forging of credentials that will harm others as well as himself.)
“Monsieur Lazhar”—elegantly shot by Ronald Plante in widescreen images that hover between grittiness and luminous sheen, and cannily edited by Stephane Lafleur—is a portrait of a teacher remarkable for its subtlety, charm, poignancy, and generosity of spirit. It was one of the foreign-language films nominated for the Oscar this year, an honor it well deserved.