Title: Monsieur Lazhar
Director: Philippe Falardeau
Starring: Mohamed Fellag, Sophie Nelisse, Emilien Neron, Brigitte Poupart, Danielle Proulx
A Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee from (French) Canada, “Monsieur Lazhar” is a psychologically perceptive, humanistic tale of adolescent grief, wayward adult yearning, and how emotional healing can often arrive from the most unexpected sources. Anchored by an award-winning lead performance, the understated movie develops slowly, like a Polaroid, into something greater than the sum of seemingly simple parts.
After a grade school Montreal teacher shockingly commits suicide, Algerian immigrant Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag) shows up at the office of the beleagured principal (Danielle Proulx) and pitches himself as a replacement, with almost two decades of classroom experience. He’s hired on, and cultural and generational gaps between he and his new students surface almost immediately — in the form of modern grammatical instructional differences, outdated Balzac dictations, and a head slap that earns him an oblique reprimand from the principal. Of course, the children are also grappling with the sudden disruption and emotional loss of being stripped of their teacher, but Lazhar seems to have a steadying influence.
Among the students most affected by the death, though, are Alice (Sophie Nelisse, reminiscent a pinch of a young Anna Chlumsky) and Simon (Emilien Neron), the latter of whom begins to exhibit more and more frequent outbursts and flashes of anger. Slowly, the reasons behind this behavior come to light. Simultaneously, Lazhar strikes up a close friendship with fellow teacher Claire (Brigitte Poupart), and handles difficult legal business related to the finality of his immigration status.
There’s a sneaky, roundabout quality to “Monsieur Lazhar,” somewhat reminiscent of fellow Oscar-nominated French film “The Class,” and not merely because each movie unfolds largely in the confines of a scholastic setting. The movie eschews the opportunity to deploy many traditional dramatic devices. While the children are understandably and properly offered grief counseling, “Monsieur Lazhar” doesn’t wallow in such presentations, and neither is the relationship between Lazhar and Claire, wonderfully captured in a halting dinner date, about easy uplift or romantic bloom.
There’s a certain stilted formality to some of the translated dialogue, particularly from the children; Simon employs Alice’s surname as a prefix when taking her to task (“Is there something you want to say? Because if so then say it to my face!”), which seems unlikely coming from a peer. And Fellag, it’s true, l0oks a bit like a cartoon villain who should be standing over a bound girl on a set of train tracks, cackling mischievously.
But French Canadian director Philippe Falardeau, working from a one-character stageplay by Evelyne de la Cheneliere, delivers a film of accumulated, resonant truths. One of the great failings of the American public educational system — and certainly often movies representing the same — is the apprehensive if not outright negligent attitude such institutions take in describing and conveying the interconnectedness of conflicts, in everything from geopolitical upheaval and human rights to artistic enlightenment and religious persecution. Such a mindset even extends to basic geometry and algebra, where rules are taught and exceptions then only maybe a year or so later.
“Monsieur Lazhar” is so effective at connecting, no matter its nominal foreign status, because it unfolds a world that recognizes and embraces complexity and duality, and isn’t dishonest about the piecemeal way in which emotional centeredness is often achieved. There are not writ-large catharses here, but rather honesty and setbacks followed by smaller moments of betterment.
Written by: Brent Simon