Sometimes a little film can make a big impact: “Monsieur Lazhar” is one such film. With a light hand, director-writer Philippe Falardeau addresses serious issues through the eyes of children and the adults with whom they interact.
In the opening scene, a young boy named Simon (Émilien Néron) enters his classroom and finds his beloved teacher, Martine, hanging from a pipe. As he runs out, a classmate, Alice (Sophie Nélisse), peeks in the open door. Alice and Simon are the only children who witness the aftermath of Martine’s suicide, but it weighs heavily on all of her 11- and 12-year-old students.
A week later, an Algerian immigrant named Bachir Lazhar (Fellag), who says he taught grade school in Algiers for 19 years, is hired to take Martine’s place. And for the next year we watch as Monsieur Lazhar wins the children’s respect and affection. Although he’s told not to bring up the suicide, he manages, through his gentle nature, to help the students deal with their grief.
We eventually discover that Monsieur Lazhar harbors a horrible secret: While applying for political asylum, he had to flee from Algeria after losing his entire family in a horrific act of terrorism. His emotional fragility seems to be the catalyst for forging such a strong and loving bond with his students.
The 61-year-old Fellag gives a brilliantly magnetic performance, which garnered him a Genie — the Canadian equivalent of an Oscar — for Best Actor. The film itself was nominated for an Academy Award this year for Best Foreign Language Film.
Falardeau has created a masterpiece by not stooping to sentimentality. His choice to have the child characters come across as wise, rather than cutesy, works wonderfully. “Monsieur Lazhar” is so rife with emotional honesty that it feels like a rare gift.
In the end, when it’s made known that Monsieur Lazhar was never a former teacher but rather a civil servant and restaurant owner, it really doesn’t matter. We learn about the important things in life from Monsieur Lazhar.
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