Nominated this year for a Foreign Language Academy Award, this French-Canadian film revolves around a 55 year-old Algerian immigrant who has sought political-asylum in Quebec.
When a sixth-grade teacher at a Montreal middle school commits suicide, Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag) reads about it in the newspapers and contacts the primly proper director of the school (Danielle Proulx), hoping to fill in as her substitute for the rest of the semester, explaining that he taught elementary school in Algiers for 19 years before moving to Canada. But before he can start dealing with continuing his impressionable pupils’ studies, he must help them cope with guilt and grief, although a psychologist has been called in and charged with that duty. Two particularly vulnerable youngsters, fragile Simon (Emilien Neron) and his classmate Alice (Sophie Nelisse), actually saw their teacher, Martine, hang herself from a pipe inside their classroom.
In addition, polite, soft-spoken Lazhar discovers that the curriculum and the customs of this community are quite different from those in the Maghreb – and often bewildering. In addition to being the only middle-aged, male teacher on the faculty, Lazhar speaks metropolitan French, not Quebecois French. But he shows great ingenuity, devising a way to teach the fables of La Fontaine by encouraging his students to create their own stories after he relates one about a chrysalis and a tree that delicately references not only Martine’s suicide but also his own personal family tragedy.
Based on a one-character stage play by Evelyne de la Cheneliere, Canadian writer/director Phillippe Falardeau (“Congorama”) delves into contemporary issues, including immigration, education, integration, and the propriety of physical contact with students Mohamed Fellag is an Algerian-born theater director who now lives in Paris and is renowned for his stand-up comedy, while Montreal playwright Evelyne de la Chaneliere can be glimpsed in a cameo as Alice’s mother.
In French with English subtitles, on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Monsieur Lazhar is an eloquent 8, concluding: “A classroom is a place of friendship, of work, of courtesy, a place of life.”