The beloved teacher of a year 6 class in Montreal has abruptly passed away. Having learned of the incident in the newspaper, Bachir Lazhar (Mohand Saïd Fellag), a 55-year-old Algerian immigrant, makes his way to the school and offers his services as a substitute teacher. He's in the right place at the right time, and is quickly hired to fill in. The substantial cultural gap between Lazhar and his new class is immediately apparent, but little by little, Lazhar comes to understand this motley but endearing group, among whom are Alice (Sophie Nélisse) and Simon (Émilien Néron), two charismatic pupils particularly affect by their teacher's passing. Yet while the class begins to heal, nobody in the school is aware of Lazhar's painful past; nor do they suspect that his own place in the world is in jeopardy.
SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: Monsieur Lazhar is a film that puts the challenge of conveying profound emotion on the shoulders of a classroom full of kids. Under the on-screen guidance of the wonderful Mohamed Saïd Fellag (in the title role), and off-screen supervision by writer/director Philippe Falardeau, the Montreal pre-teens deliver an emotional and intellectual meditation on guilt, loss, sadness and love.
The core of the film is the relationship between Alice and Lazhar. It is a friendship that crosses generations and which provides the film with a truly vast emotional scope.
Thankfully absent the histrionics of genre staples such as Dead Poets Society, Mr Holland’s Opus or Dangerous Minds, Falardeau’s adaptation of fellow Québécois Evelyne de la Chenelière’s play honours the power of the written word (a motif reinforced throughout the film), and expands on its stage origins via remarkably-assured cinematic touches. A single-take establishing shot at the start of the film, which allows us to share in the shock, tragedy and aftermath of the horrible event that casts its dark shadow over Monsieur Lazhar, is superb.
Most deeply affected by the brutal tragedy (the details of which are best discovered upon viewing) are schoolyard buddies Alice (Sophie Nélisse) and Simon (Émilien Néron). Both struggling to cope with what they have witnessed, Alice takes to dissecting and intellectualising her feelings, whilst Simon begins to act out his torment in defiant, even violent ways. Their new teacher is Bachir Lazhar, an Algerian immigrant who presents himself for the position that no one else wants but who carries with him his own secrets, stemming from clashes with radicals in his homeland.
Lazhar’s methods are out-of-tune with modern teaching standards (he is surprised to learn the works of 19th century French novelist Honoré de Balzac aren’t that relevant to Montreal middle-schoolers), but his empathy for the children, their situation and suffering endears him to most of the class and faculty. The hold-outs are career-minded principal, Ms. Vaillancourt (Danielle Proulx), whose well-intentioned by-the-book governing is at odds with Lazhar’s experience with the kids; and Simon, whose sad and relevant back story emerges as the film progresses.
The core of the film is the relationship between Alice and Lazhar. It is a friendship that crosses generations and which provides the film with a truly vast emotional scope. Fellag and Nélisse’s scenes together are perfectly pitched; it is little wonder they would both take home 2011 Genie awards for their performances.
If Monsieur Lazhar ultimately does become that feel-good classroom drama, it is not because it bows to the clichés that usually manifest in school-set films. Falardeau’s film is more concerned with a healing of the human spirit than a broadening of young minds; these kids aren’t just made better by Lazhar, but he too is offered salvation by their presence in his life. It is in the children that Fallardeau finds the essence of his film; they remain wondrous and innocent, despite being made wise beyond their years by harsh realities. As Lazhar grows to experience the glory of their goodness, so too does the audience.