Starring Mohamed Fellag. In French and Arabic with English subtitles. Rated PG.
The classroom drama is usually a place to trot out inspirational tropes and assert a taste for social justice. (“He’s depraved on accounta he’s deprived,” as one Jet famously said of another gang member in West Side Story.) But Monsieur Lazhar, on the fast track to the Oscars as this is written, isn’t very interested in the usual formulations. Quebec writer-director Philippe Falardeau’s thoughtful take on grade-school life (based on a one-man play) is far more, well, elementary.
Here, the school’s existential crossroads offers an unexpected fork in the highway for our title character, a gentle Algerian immigrant played superbly by Mohamed Fellag. He is actually a political refugee, fleeing a violent experience that he keeps well bottled up, especially when representing himself as an experienced teacher to the principal of a troubled school in his Montreal neighbourhood. Actually, it’s an unusually harmonious setting for children from many backgrounds, but their balance has been thrown off by the suicide of a beloved teacher—in her own classroom, no less.
Everyone has a tough time with that, but it’s especially stormy for the two tykes who found her: sweet-faced, smart-eyed Alice and darkly mischievous Simon, played phenomenally well by Sophie Nélisse and Emilien Néron. Although Bachir Lazhar, hired temporarily, is forced to explain his own story to Canadian government reps, in class he prefers to listen, even if his old-school methods—we’re talking Balzac and straight rows here—don’t always put his young charges at ease. He’s similarly flummoxed in his dealings with colleagues, including a perky art teacher (Brigitte Poupart) who shows interest. In the end, this beautifully judged movie is less about finding a new life than about grasping the best essence of the one you’ve been given.
Watch the trailer for Monsieur Lazhar.