A 2011 Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, Monsieur Lazhar begins at its emotional nadir, as a young boy named Simon (Émilien Néron) discovers his elementary school teacher hanging from the rafters of her classroom. The teacher’s suicide leaves a void that is quickly filled by Bachir Lazhar (Fellag), an Algerian immigrant whose outdated pedagogy is trumped by his calming presence and his ability to coax honest reactions from traumatized students and faculty alike. (He bristles when a school-appointed psychologist forces him to leave his classroom for scheduled rap sessions.) But Bachir harbors a secret pain of his own, one that may explain his serendipitous appearance at the school when it needed him the most. This suggestion of an emotional symbiosis is an empathetic and noble idea, even if the film promises a bit more than it can deliver in its exploration of grief and loss.
Bachir’s telegenic star pupil is Alice (Sophie Nélisse), who jolts the class from its postmortem haze when she turns an essay assignment about “violence in schools” into a scathing critique of their late instructor. From there, the film plots a straight and narrow course of Bachir clashing with his colleagues over the students’ unresolved feelings and struggling to fit in due to the mildest of cultural differences, if you can even call them that. It’s as if the film is stretching to include examples of a backlash to the multicultural, cosmopolitan composition of Montreal – such as the phys ed teacher (Jules Philip) who confides in Bachir his weariness toward the school’s “woman-ocracy” – that exist to show us just how saintly and post-racial Bachir truly is. His simplistic raison d’être is further solidified when the film largely glosses over a subplot involving the circumstances of his flight from Algeria. Whenever Monsieur Lazhar is tugging on the heartstrings with virtuosity, it’s simultaneously straining credulity.
But this is not a story that necessarily calls for a deeper analysis of character. It’s more like an elegant chain of dominoes. I can understand why writer-director Philippe Falardeau (who adapted the film from Evelyne de la Chenelière’s stage play) would want to avoid halting its forward momentum for anything that disturbs its thoughtful construction. The student-teacher dynamic is handled a rare maturity and a warm sense of humor, and the Algerian playwright Fellag is a revelation as Bachir, gradually earning the trust of students that have every reason to close him off. It’s just a shame that it feels like it’s all over too fast, with pat resolutions for all the loose ends. Monsieur Lazhar at least recognizes that the path of recovery isn’t a sunny one, even if it can’t help but smooth out so many of the bumps.
“Monsieur Lazhar” opens in limited release tomorrow, April 13.