Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag), an Algerian immigrant, is hired to replace an elementary school teacher in Montreal who committed suicide in her classroom. While the class goes through a long healing process, nobody in the school is aware of Bachir's painful former life; nor that he is at risk of being deported at any moment.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
'Good teacher' movies have profound appeal for obvious reasons: teachers are the second tier guardians, carers and role models for our children. The potential impact of teachers on the lives of their students is huge. Inevitably, good teacher characters on screen become almost saintly figures - but we tend to forgive such excess. Bachir Lazhar (Fellag) is one such teacher, who follows in this tradition. The moment we meet him, offering to take the place of the teacher at a Montreal school who had committed suicide, we can tell he's decent, honest, caring, humble and devoted to his task. He cannot be denied.
Monsieur Lazhar soon proves to be an unusual teacher, but effective. The class responds to him and he tries his best to open their minds, always aware of the sense of grief and absence of answers the children have for the death of their beloved Martine Lachance (Helena Laliberte). Hidden from them all is Lazhar's own grief, and his risky status in Canada, having fled Algeria after his family were killed in a political reprisal. He is awaiting the determination of his refugee status.
This parallel story is intended to counterpoint the surface story and give it poignancy but it doesn't quite work, although at least it provides him the emotional rationale to explain to the children that death cannot always be explained or understood. The one flaw in the screenplay is that we are never quite sure of the facts behind the teacher's suicide. This may work as consistency of an idea about death, but the void that it leaves denies the audience a reference point for all the emotions surrounding it.
Two friends in his class, Simon (Emilien Neron) and Alice (Sophie Nelisse) are at the centre of the story, their friendship under severe strain with a secret that has to do with the suicide. As the film moves closer towards the resolution, it focuses on Simon and when the youngster lets his emotions out, it is Lazhar who is there to comfort and reassure him. But since we are in doubt about the suicide, the effect is emotional confusion.
Still, it is beautifully performed by all the actors, not least the youngsters. Indeed, it is the insights into the 11 and 12 year old Canadian children that is the film's most interesting aspect for me. They show considerable maturity and strength.
Review by Louise Keller:
Comparing the classroom with the protective cocoon from which the pupa emerges as an adult butterfly, Monsieur Lazhar is an exquisitely simple film about complex subject matter. Adapted from Evelyne de la Chenelière's stage play, there's a gentle elegance with which filmmaker Philippe Falardeau constructs the work, while the searing honesty of the youngsters (through astonishing, naturalistic performances) pierces our emotional barriers as issues about death, breaking rules and being allowed to express feelings are woven unobtrusively into the canvas of school daily life. The fact that both teacher and students are in need of protection adds greatly to the poignancy and Falardeau delivers an emotionally rich film filled with nuance, grace and subtlety.
Watching a group of 11 and 12 year olds play in the snow-filled school ground in wintry Montreal offers little clue as to what is about to happen when Simon (Émilien Néron) runs inside the school building to collect a tray of milk cartons. Although we do not see what he sees as he peers in the class room, the shocking revelation that his teacher has hung herself quickly reverberates. Headmistress Mrs Vaillancourt (Danielle Proulx) is a stickler for the rules and after providing some cursory sessions with a psychologist is in favour of moving on and not referring to the tragic events.
It is indicative of how the primary students have taken to their new Algerian teacher Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag), that they suggest the traditional word 'Cheese' is replaced by his first name when posing for the class photo. As the narrative progresses and we discover about the recent loss that Bachir has suffered, we realise that it is not only the children that need a safe haven. Although the walls of the classroom have been newly painted, the room now devoid of colour and life, is a daily reminder to the students of their teacher. When Bachir suggests swapping classrooms, Mrs Vaillancourt suggests it would be like putting snow in a neighbour's backyard.
Despite the subject matter, the film plays lightly and with humour and the scene in which Claire (Brigitte Poupart), the expressive theatre teacher invites Bachir for dinner is as amusing as it is awkward. Adorable Alice L'Écuyer (Sophie Nélisse), with rosebud lips and sweet disposition quickly becomes Bachir's favourite; it is her essay on violence that expresses in simple words what everyone wants to say.
All the children are extraordinary but it is Nélisse with her expressive, vulnerable gaze and Néron as Simon, the child burdened with the weight of guilt who win our hearts. A large tear drop rolled down my cheek in the scene in which Simon finally reveals his torment. Also moving, is the way the issue concerning the rules of physical contact between teachers and students is addressed.
Nominated for an Academy Award and winner of six Genie Awards in 2012, including Best Film, Best Direction and Best Screenplay for Philippe Falardeau, Best Actor for Fellag and Best Supporting Actress for little Sophie Nélisse, this is a film that has something to say and bursts at the seams to deliver its touching message.
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MONSIEUR LAZHAR (MA)
CAST: Mohamed Fellag, Sophie Nelisse, Emilien Neron, Marie-Eve Beauregard, Vincent Millard, Seddik Benslimane, Louis-David Leblanc, Gabriel Verdier, Marianne Soucy-Lord
PRODUCER: Luc Dery, Kim McCraw
DIRECTOR: Philippe Falardeau
SCRIPT: Philippe Falardeau
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Ronald Plante
EDITOR: Stepheane Lafleur
MUSIC: Martin Leon
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Emmanuel Frechette
RUNNING TIME: 94 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Palace
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: September 6, 2012