There is nothing groundbreaking about Phillipe Falardeau’s Monsieur Lazhar, which is one of a long line of films about teachers and students. But I found it so delicately wrought, its heart on its sleeve, and so empathetic for the fragility of children, and at the same time, their teachers, that it was a profoundly moving experience.
The film opens with a schoolboy (Émilien Néron), discovering his teacher hanging in the classroom. Her suicide rocks the small Montreal middle school, and a replacement is hard to come by. But one day in walks the title character (Fellag), who is an Algerian immigrant who needs a job.
The dynamic of the new teacher, who teaches the old-fashioned way, clashing with the more liberal attitudes of his students (they refer to teachers by their first name, and have no compunction of speaking up without being called on, which were no-nos when I went to school) make things rough at first. But soon the kids learn to love Fellag, and he them, especially an intelligent girl (Sophie Nelisse) who becomes his favorite.
Fellag hides a secret from all of them–he has been touched by tragedy of an unbearable nature. He also has more secrets, one of which the discerning viewer will figure out. But he takes great care with his charges, especially in allowing them to deal with their grief and confusion about their dead teacher. As he tells a colleague, standing in the classroom, “It’s difficult to understand why anyone would kill themselves. It’s impossible to understand why anyone would do it here.”
The screen time is divided between Lazhar and two of the students. Nelisse, a pretty girl but an observer, who instead of playing with the children on the playground watches instead, and Néron, a troublemaker who bears some guilt over his teacher’s suicide. Both kids give lovely naturalistic performances (Nelisse won a Genie, the Canadian equivalent of the Oscar, as did Fellag and the picture itself). But all of the kids are great, including the roly-poly Vincent Millard. If there’s ever a French-Canadian version of Leave It to Beaver, he’d be a perfect Larry Mondello.
But this movie is about Lazhar, and as such, Fellag is memorable. An Algerian comedian, Fellag is wonderful as a man who has little to live for but manages to get through each day, one at a time, with quiet dignity and grace. He strikes up a friendship with a colleague that could lead to romance, but he’s not ready for it, and the chemistry between the two seems authentic, rather than a phony one that most movies would go for.
Monsieur Lazhar is touching without being sentimental, and gives a clear-eyed view of what it is to be a child confronting the specter of death, and what it is to be a teacher trying to both instruct and shield children from this specter. Well done.
My grade for Monsieur Lazhar: A.
Note: this was one of the nominees for the last year’s Academy Awards
for Best Foreign Language. It’s the quickest I’ve seen all five in quite
some time, and the first time I’ve seen all five in the cinema in many
years. Though Monsieur Lazhar is terrific, it’s not as good as the
winner, A Separation. Here’s how I rank them: A Separation, Monsieur
Lazhar, Footnote, In Darkness, Bullhead.