Canada’s Oscar-nominated entry for the 2011 Best Foreign Language Film, Monsieur Lazhar is a film of great subtlety and moving drama, a gem of a film that should hopefully find a nice audience with its long overdue theatrical release. Writer/Director Philippe Falardeau has crafted a contemplative film, which proves insightful and memorable with a terrific lead performance by Algerian actor Mohamed Said Fellag. Buoying the film to a level of something quite special are two staggering youth performances, and a winning and rich screenplay by Falardeau, adapted from a one-character play by playwright Évelyne de la Chenelière.
Monsieur Lazhar begins with a shocking tragedy. A beloved teacher named Martine is discovered hanging in her classroom by her trademark blue scarf and sadly, she is discovered by Simon (Émilien Néron), a student in her class. The swift response from the school principal, Mrs. Vaillancourt (Danielle Proulx), includes the hiring of a grief counselor and psychologist to be available to the students, staff, and parents. And soon after news of the passing of the teacher becomes news, Mrs. Vailliancourt responds to the inquiries of Bachir Lazhar (Fellag), who applies for the suddenly vacant teaching opportunity. Vaillancourt hires Lazhar rather abruptly, following her instincts and taking him on his word that he is a teacher with over 20 years of experience in his native country of Algeria. With tragedy now in the past, the school must move on.
Lazhar initially sticks out like a sore thumb to his shell-shocked classroom, as he not only has to take over a class fraught with sadness and confusion and pain, but also must do so in the same classroom. Somewhat reasonably, one student initially can do nothing more than stare at the place where Martine was found hanging and is despondent and unreachable. Undeterred, Lazhar must also learn student names and find a marriage of sorts between an older and more traditional approach than that of his predecessor. The new teacher brings forth secrets of his own and it soon becomes apparent that Lazhar needs this job just as much as the school needs him.
I have researched reviews and articles written about this film which reveal some important plot points and I will attempt to refrain from identifying any spoilers going forward. I will say, rather safely, that Monsieur Lazhar has a number of effective and moving dramatic angles, which speak to Lazhar’s leaving of Algeria, the family life he knew and lost, and the overwhelming circumstances he finds himself embedded in.
Credited simply as Fellag, the Algerian actor is tremendous and handles a wide-ranging emotional arc with this character with incredible ease and engaging charm. Instantly Lazhar is likable, a sympathetic figure perhaps, but a well-intentioned man looking to try to purge the darkness of a prior life with the hopefulness of a newly created one. Fellag is terrific and never strikes a false beat.
Other performances are noteworthy, including Proulx’s emotionally teetering Principal and Brigitte Poupart’s turn as a teacher who becomes a friend to Lazhar. While their subplot is the weakest element of the film, Poupart excels at capturing her character’s playful and probing curiosities. However, to praise Monsieur Lazhar properly, one must mention the two main child performances which drive much of the emotional and dramatic power. Simon (Émilién Neron) and Alice (Sophie Nélisse) both witnessed Martine’s lifeless body and have formed a bond of sorts over their shared experience. Simon has problematic tendencies, he all to willingly calls the oldest child in the class a “retard” and seems to be a bit disturbed, but Alice is Simon’s counterbalance. She is engaged, affable, and kind, becoming a face of reliance and trustworthiness for not only Simon, but with Lazhar as well.
I find it rather fascinating that Monsieur Lazhar was merely a one-character play when originally conceived, because Philippe Falardeau has adapted that blueprint into a rich and thought-provoking dramatic piece about the good in people to try and make a change no matter their circumstances. Beautifully told and efficiently paced, Monsieur Lazhar never panders, never plays to the lowest common denominator. Falardeau’s screenplay effectively stays out of the political and emotional entanglements of its characters by simply letting lives play out for us to observe, consider, and ponder.
Even if one subplot derails things somewhat for awhile, I admired Monsieur Lazhar tremendously. The team that produced Lazhar saw Canada awarded with an Oscar in 2010 for Best Foreign Language Film for their film Incendies. While the Academy rightfully awarded Iran’s extraordinary A Separation with the 2011 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, Monsieur Lazhar is a strong and worthy nominee, a film which quietly wins you over minute by minute and moment by moment.