3 Stars out of 4
He comes from Algeria. He has an inviting smile. He brings warmth. His name is Monsieur Lazhar, and he is the new teacher at an elementary school in Montreal, Quebec. The students take a shine to him, but are dealing with a recent school tragedy. Monsieur Lazhar loves to work in the classroom, but he is also dealing with a recent family in the tragedy. This students-teacher bond is not only sweet, but serendipitous.
By the end of Philippe Falardeau’s Monsieur Lazhar, these characters will find some emotional stability. Do they transform? I am uncertain, but I doubt that is the point. Falardeau doesn’t expect his characters’s wounds to heal in a small 90 minutes. He, however, does leave room for them to find some acceptance. If you enjoyed Laurent Cantet’s The Class, you will appreciate this – but in a smaller way.
What is the tragedy? It is at first difficult to tell. We witness a flock of students playing during recess on a cold winter day. A boy enters the school, with the permission of a schoolteacher, walks down the labyrinthine rows of lockers to retrieve the lunch-time carton of milk for all the students. Suddenly, he peeks into his classroom and finds his teacher hanging from the lights. From here, Monsieur Lazhar develops a greater uneasiness than you might anticipate in this kind of film.
On the surface, this is a sweet and delicate drama about an adult coming to terms in the company of the coming-of-age. But with this first (tracking) shot, Monsieur Lazhar – like this poor student – strips away its own innocence. It deals with personal, human matters without any cloying excesses. Falardeau, meanwhile, evaluates the elementary school experience with true heart. After his great piece It’s Not Me, I Swear! it is clear this director knows how to empathize with the young.
In Monsieur Lazhar, there are no bullies, nerds, delinquents, or cool kids. They are all on an equal level, even if it takes the students awhile to learn that. The main character is Monsieur Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag), who we learn is also struggling with the memories of his past. He is an Algerian refugee who lost his wife and two children in an arson attack. His personality, however, has a defiant lightness and we often feel that his smiles are breaking through the tears.
Other than Falardeau’s firm grasp of emotions, there is not much to Monsieur Lazhar. It deals with basic human conflict, but in a sincere way. You want more from it, but – in a way – it moves well with less. Since we learn of the two major plot points in the opening ten minutes, Falardeau’s film engages with how characters deal with these situations, not simply how they sorrowfully learn about them.
Monsieur Lazhar is based on the one-character short play by Évelyne de la Cheneliére, which was written in a monologue. The dialogue in Monsieur Lazhar is more terse and its central character is surrounded by curious learners and listeners. Falardeau, meanwhile, emphasizes gentle human expressions.
Fellag is a fine actor, who makes the movie when in closeup. He is the elementary school teacher I never had. I learned that he wrote several plays in France, which often carried significant commentary on the social difficulties of France. If you are looking for that level of profound in Monsieur Lazhar, you are beyond yourself. If you see this film, wear a smile. Afterwards, you will wear a similar expression, but water might resonate above.