Monsieur Lazhar, the Oscar-nominated French-Canadian export, is a mystery worth solving. Not a contradiction, the film is instead a paradox. The movie involves a tragedy, but it is life-affirming; its plot holds deep, even dark secrets, but maintains a lilting pace.
Perhaps most surprising is how many of the film's stars, not more than 11 or 12 years old, convey adult themes such as abandonment and loss, with such gentle perception.
Written and directed with expert economy by Philippe Falardeau, Monsieur Lazhar was named Best Canadian Feature at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, swept last year's Genie Awards (Canada's Oscars) and was one of the five nominees for Best Foreign Language Film at this year's Academy Awards. The film's 94 minutes are sublime and worthy of high praise.
Monsieur Lazhar is Bachir, an Algerian refugee who mysteriously appears on the doorstep of a Montreal public elementary school, applying to be a substitute teacher in the wake of the school's sudden and tragic loss of one of its educators.
"A classroom is a place of friendship, of work, of courtesy, a place of life," says Lazhar.
But his class is broken. His students are inwardly traumatized by the loss of their previous teacher and their young souls are too bruised to understand how to heal. To complicate matters, in a 21st century classroom where teachers are scolded for being too close to their students or discouraged from hugs or physical affection, Monsieur Lazhar reminds us of how delicately adults must tread in helping adolescents cope with loss.
In a concurrent and equally compelling plotline, Lazhar's backstory is slowly unveiled. He is recovering from his own personal tragedy and faces possible deportation to his country, where he feared for his life. Fellag (known in his native Algeria by his one name) makes an outstanding North American debut as the title character. Primarily a comic actor, Fellag instead portrays Lazhar with the gentlest of affectations.
Even finer are two ingenues--Sophie Nelisse as Alice and Emilien Neron as Simon--who both offer grace and passion in their performances.
Films about inspirational teachers who manifest change have, unfortunately, become unbearable cliches. Dangerous Minds and Dead Poets Society are cringe-worthy with their over-the-top earnestness and lack of reality. But Monsieur Lazhar reminds me so much of To Sir With Love, the 1967 ground-breaker starring Sidney Poitier, which understood adults and adolescents as the complex creatures that we are (or were).
Having already seen Monsieur Lazhar twice, I look forward to watching it again. Don't skip this class.