by Warren Curry
Canadian writer/director Philippe Falardeau’s “Monsieur Lazhar” was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film in this year’s Academy Awards, and it’s the type of movie you’d expect to go over well with Oscar voters. While I’ll stop short of describing the film as “feel good” entertainment, it is relatively safe and emotionally obvious, although it has powerful moments. The film shifts back and forth between moving, organic scenes and ones that come across a bit contrived.
If the previous sentence makes “Monsieur Lazhar” sound like a frustrating viewing experience, well, that’s not the case at all. It always helps to have a strong lead performance as an anchor, and single name actor Fellag is exceptional as the title character. He plays an Algerian man who recently relocated to Montreal and steps in to teach a class of middle school children whose previous instructor, a woman named Martine, committed suicide. What makes the tragic event even more harrowing is that a student, Simon (Émilien Néron), found the deceased teacher’s body in her classroom.
Lazhar applies for the job in a peculiar way. He makes an unsolicited visit to the school’s principal (Danielle Proulx) after reading about the incident in the newspaper and offers his services. Lazhar claims to have many years of teaching experience in his native country, and the principal, knowing it will be a tough position to fill, agrees to hire him. In the midst of this extremely difficult situation, Lazhar is also dealing with his own shattering, slowly revealed personal issues and, of course, the cultural transition.
Most affected by the death are Simon and another student named Alice (Sophie Nélissec). Alice, who held her teacher in high regard, blames Simon for the woman’s passing due to his role in an incident that got her in some amount of trouble. Both children struggle to come to grips with their complex emotions in the aftermath of the tragedy.
Based on Evelyne de la Chenelière’s play, perhaps Falardeau’s biggest challenge in adapting the material was making the central child characters come off convincingly. Alice and Simon are obviously dealing with a vast amount of internal confusion, but they occasionally seem to be processing their feelings in an oddly mature way. The obligatory breakdown scene when Simon confronts his guilt about possibly causing the downward spiral that led to his teacher’s death feels staged and too transparent about its intentions.
The film is at its best in its quieter, intimate moments. When Falardeau’s direction focuses more on observation than orchestration, the film finds a natural rhythm and gives the viewer a very fly-on-a-wall perspective. In an understated but instinctive performance, Fellag does a superb job of conveying Lazhar’s compassion for his students, a man driven by an innate desire to do good.
Despite some bumps along the way, the film does reach a satisfying emotional apex, culminating in a powerful final scene that also happens to be free of dialogue. Like many films before it, “Monsieur Lazhar” says a lot when it speaks at a low volume.
Monsieur Lazhar (Canada/2011)
Director: Philippe Falardeau
Cast: Fellag, Sophie Nélisse, Émilien Néron, Danielle Proulx
Not Rated, 94 minutes
(Music Box Films. Opens in New York City and Los Angeles on April 13, 2012.)