Philippe Falardeau’s Monsieur Lazhar was this year’s foreign film entry from Canada and was lucky enough to be one of the final five nominees for the Academy Awards. It didn’t win, but it wasn’t because it wasn’t a good film, it was because it had the unfortunate luck of being nominated the same year as the Iranian film A Separation, a film whose momentum could not be stopped throughout awards season.
Monsieur Lazhar begins with the sudden suicide of a teacher at a Canadian elementary school. Her co-workers knew she hadn’t been feeling particularly well, but it still comes as a shock to everyone. The news comes to the attention of Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag), who comes to the school to apply for her position. He is hired almost immediately and begins teaching his new students about the French language.
Meanwhile, we are slowly filled in on Lazhar’s backstory. He has come from Algeria to escape threats on his family due to a controversial book his wife had written. He came to Canada first to prepare the way for the rest of his family, but before they could come over, someone set fire to their apartment building, leading to their deaths. Now Lazhar not only has to deal with this tragedy and trying to gain political asylum in a foreign country, but also with a classroom full of students who have tragically lost their former teacher.
This is a rather simple, but interesting story. Lazhar already has so much going on in his life, and yet he continues to persevere when another difficult situation is added to his troubles. On top of replacing a teacher, he is also starting a job in a country that he’s not particularly familiar with and at a school where he doesn’t know all of the rules. His adjustment comes at the same time that his students have to adjust to him.
The teacher whose suicide rocked the school was liked by her students for the most part and was good friends with the staff. In order to help the children deal with the situation, the school brings in a psychologist for them to talk to. Lazhar goes along with this, but also feels that the children should be talking about it openly, whereas the school feels that it’s something that’s best hushed up and forgotten.
The school’s method does end up having some negative side effects. The lack of open communication leads to a lot of pent up emotions about the incident among the students. One of them, a student with a camera who still has a picture of the teacher, seems particularly hard-hit by the incident, something we find out a little more about as the film progresses.
As for Lezhar’s situation, he makes the best of his new life while trying to deal with his personal problems. He becomes close with the students, who, as expected, don’t become taken with him right away after having just lost their previous teacher. His first lesson doesn’t go particularly well, but it’s understandable since he tries to have them take dictation while reading to them from a work written by Balzac. His method does improve however as he eventually begins to teach them about fables, something far more suited to their level.
Lazhar is brought to life by the touching performance of Mohamed Fellag. He brings a sweet innocence to the character while mixing that with the worry of his political troubles. All of this comes together to create a very realistic character. It seems I’ve been seeing a lot of films lately where the main character has a load to carry on their shoulders and Lazhar is no exception as he tries to juggle his job at school and his personal situation.
While Monsieur Lazhar is a decent film, I wish it would have done more to stand out from other similar films. His personal crisis was a nice touch, but it didn’t get much attention in the film. In a sense, I was reminded of the French film The Class, which took home the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2008. It too was a decent film, but rather forgettable in that it just didn’t stand out very much from other school films. In the end, Lazhar does get a recommendation. Just don’t expect to be blown away by it.
While it may not stand out from similar movies, Monsieur Lazhar is a sweet film with a simple story and remains engaging thanks in large part to Mohamed Fellag's charming performance.