MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Philippe Falardeau
FilmPulse Score: 7.5/10
Monsieur Lazhar is another in a long line of inspirational teacher films set to show viewers that teachers are an unending source of inspiration and worldly advice. I have grown tired of this plotline and subsequent variations, but Monsieur Lazhar is a shining example of the inspirational teacher film and the poignancy of said films if executed correctly, with honesty and maturity.
Philippe Falardeau’s (It’s Not Me, I Swear and Congorama) film adaption of Evelyne de la Chenelière‘s play (she also plays Alice’s mother), Monsieur Lazhar was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film category as the official Canadian submission. The film tells the story of Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag), an Algerian immigrant hired at Montreal public grade school after the original teacher was found hanging from the ceiling of her classroom. The teacher, Martine Lachance, was found by one of her students, Simon (Émilien Néron) while he was delivering milk to the classroom as he always does every Thursday. The film continues to show the effects of death and the ways that the children try to deal with the loss, but also their grief, which at times seem to be stifled by the school.
Monsieur Lazhar, at the same time, is dealing with a loss of his own; having come to Canada seeking asylum and waiting for his wife and children to join him, only to have his family killed the night before they were supposed to leave Algeria. The film cuts between Bachir in the classroom (having the children do a dictation of Balzac, rearranging their desks, etc.) and Bachir outside of the classroom (picking up his wife’s belongings, preparing for a hearing, etc.). No one knows of his painful past, nor of his refugee status; the school is under the impression that he is a permanent resident of Canada.
Bachir notices, because of his current dealing with grief, that the children are trying to communicate or express their feelings about the death of their teacher. The school has brought on a psychologist to help the children come to grips with their loss. Bachir realizes that it is merely a stop-gap, but is told “not to make waves”. He continues to witness things that lead him to believe that the children want to talk about their teacher, Martine and also of the trouble they are having trying to understand something that may well be beyond their comprehension.
Monsieur Lazhar is a heart-warming, but at the same time, heart-wrenching story of how people (whether it be children or adults) trying to come to terms with the loss of a family member (albeit for the children it was a teacher, but school, at that young age, can be something like a second home). Bachir, himself, uses a very personal and poignant short story, that he wrote himself and reads to his class, in an effort to say goodbye – something that Martine Lachance never did. The film features some great performances from Mohamed Fellag as Monsieur Lazhar, Émilien Néron as Simon – a guilt-ridden child that feels responsible for his teacher’s suicide – and Sophie Nélisse as Alice, the surprisingly mature young girl that has the courage to speak about the effects of Martine’s decisions.