Monsieur Lazhar is a film about relationships that don’t quite work. But it’s no big deal. Most matters in real life don’t quite work. We go on. We deal with people. We do what we have to do.
The film is set in French-speaking Montreal. A teacher has taken her life, right in the classroom. Fortunately almost no students of this elementary school saw the act. A generous man with teaching experiences offers himself as a substitute, but he is an immigrant from Algeria, and while he too speaks French, it is not Quebecois French nor Parisian French. So there is slight distance, between the teacher and his students and between the teacher and the school’s administration.
But this is soft bigotry. Very little is made in the film of the linguistic differences. The man, Bachir Lazhar (played by Mohamed Fellag, who goes in the credits by just Fellag), also teaches in the Algerian style—with desks arranged in rows, and with a bit of affectionate touching—pats on the back, sort of thing. Lazhar has some things to learn about basing grammar on Balzac, which is mainly beyond this particular class and outside the Montreal school system.
The students object to the Balzac and the administration to the touches meant to boost. In Algeria, where Lazhar had taught before, it was okay to touch students for positive reasons. But it is not strenuous objecting. As I say, objections are muted. Lazhar adjusts. He is friendly and caring. That is what his back-patting is about. It’s a loving gesture. The school officials had doubts about Lazhar but overcame them in time.
For Lazhar senses that these students might miss and even be traumatically affected by the death of their original teacher. They just don’t show it. Lazhar wants to be helpful, not just as a teacher, but as an adult.
The film reminds us of how teachers may play multiple roles if they are inclined. Lazhar himself moved to Canada because of a tragic loss in his life. He regards the move as positive. His relationship with the students is his salutary way of dealing with his own heartache.
The school brings in a psychologist thinking the students need professional help. But the students don’t seem to respond much to the shrink. We don’t know. Are they just being cool, unwilling to show grief or confusion? Or are they truly unaffected?
Meanwhile, Lazhar is not getting through. The rules and conventions of the Montreal school system confuse him. Still, he gives it a go. He is patient and understanding and not put off by practices he doesn’t understand. As critic David Edelstein has noted, “Writer-director Philippe Falardeau keeps most of the turmoil under the surface, but what’s on top is tense, pregnant, and ineffably sad.” A subtle, barely-felt score by Martin Léon maintains the mood of solvable grief, containment.
Edelstein continues, “Fellag is a magnetic Monsieur Lazhar: willfully self-contained, anger vanquished, channeling his emotions into his teaching, into finding an equilibrium in the classroom—which is an obstacle course.”
This is an understated film, which was nominated for an Oscar this year in the foreign film category. A few critics I read felt it was actually superior to the winner, A Separation from Iran, which Filmworks showed two months ago. Monsieur Lazhar has plenty of delicately-shaded characters, without outright villains or heroes, as Toronto Star film critic Peter Howell points out. The film is based on a one-person play by Quebec’s Évelyne de la Chenelière, and it is a commendable transformation.