Film Review: Monsieur Lazhar

Nominated for this year’s Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar, this surprising, humanist Canadian film about an Algerian immigrant seeking solace for his young students and himself is a winner.

There’s snow on the Montreal school playground but the sun is shining at the start, and at the heart, of writer-director Philippe Falardeau’s quietly powerful new film. A middle-school boy and girl, endearing in their winter caps, chat before the boy is reminded it’s his turn to bring the milk into the classroom. As Simon (Émilien Néron) walks down the hall with his heavy tray, we see a distorted, hazy figure far in the background. It’s not a monster, just the light playing tricks with the camera, but this ghoulish, peripheral image deftly sets the stage for the true horror to come. Peering through the locked door’s narrow window, the boy sees his teacher, Martine, hanging from the ceiling. He runs for help, but before the staff can herd all the children back outside, the girl, Alice (Sophie Nélisse), peeks in.

Falardeau takes his time introducing the title character, a tall, courtly, middle-aged Algerian immigrant named Bachir Lazhar (the Algerian actor Fellag), who shows up in Principal Vaillancourt’s office explaining he’d read about the tragedy and is eager to take over as substitute teacher. Vaillancourt (the marvelous, authoritative Danielle Proulx), questions his experience, but hires him in desperation. Who is this man? Can he be trusted? This restrained, unsentimental but deeply moving drama highlights the extreme vulnerability of children (not to mention the adult characters, and the audience, for that matter), while trusting our capacity to trust. Falardeau, whose screenplay is an adaptation of Evelyne De La Cheneliere’s one-character play (the playwright briefly appears as Alice’s airline-pilot mother), effectively builds suspense by eking out clues to the many unknowns: Bachir’s reasons for leaving Algeria, Martine’s relationship to the troubled Simon, Alice’s simmering anger toward Simon.

In depicting Bachir’s immersion in an alien environment, the director challenges the viewer’s own preconceptions, prejudices and sympathies. Bachir appears to be sincere in his attempt to teach and heal his traumatized students, but he lies to the principal about cuffing Simon on the ears, and his pedagogy is at first painfully old-fashioned. (He insists on placing the desks in rows, and has the children write dictation from Balzac.) We eventually learn about his work in Algeria, and that he is seeking political asylum after suffering his own horrific tragedy.

The classroom here serves as it often does as a microcosm of society, but freshly so, with the ideal of learning to tolerate and even welcome challenges to the familiar (other cultures, ideas, the emotions of the person sitting next to you), while struggling with random acts of cruelty and contemporary taboos, such as a teacher hugging a student. Through his cogent, thoughtful dialogue and sensitive direction, particularly of the children, Falardeau renders both the global and personal complexity of one school’s cast of characters: the angry Simon, afraid he caused the death of his beloved teacher; the intellectually precocious Alice, struggling with the aggression of suicide; the isolated, anxious Bachir, determined to reach his young charges. What is lost on non-French-speaking audiences is how Bachir’s Algerian-inflected French is both the same and a different language as Quebecois. In addition to everything else, Falardeau’s film is a valentine to the French language.
Despite its somber concerns, Monsieur Lazhar steps lightly, open to light (beautifully captured by cinematographer Ronald Plante), music (a spare, affecting original score by Martin Léon), and laughter.