Can words uttered by a troubled child inflict just as much hurt and pain as, say, a terrorist attack? It’s a stretch, but that’s the dizzying idea at the nucleus of director Philippe Falardeau’s Canadian drama, and it’s one that the filmmaker never shies away from. Set almost entirely within the walls of an elementary school, Monsieur Lazhar is a small fish that asks some very big questions.
It starts with a child discovering his teacher hanging from the classroom ceiling. This event sends shockwaves through the school. Children are unable to process the tragedy, while teachers struggle to help their young charges in an environment strictly regulated by fearful/paranoid governing bodies.
Into this tremulous setting sweeps Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag), an Algerian immigrant who offers himself up as a replacement teacher. Monsieur Lazhar’s methods, though, don’t exactly chime with the school’s austere regime, and it’s not long before he’s ruffling feathers.
Banish any notions of this turning into a wacky classroom caper (though it’s a safe bet Robin Williams is already angling for an English-language remake). Lazhar isn’t without humour, but its quips are all intelligently cracked. The gently unfolding story swells with thoughtful observations and Falardeau draws fascinating comparisons between today’s overly-paranoid education system and the government’s treatment ofsuspectimmigrants.
The performances are key. As the eponymous wisdom-giver, Fellag puts in a beautifully understated turn, effectively spinning Lazhar into a mythical figure of the Mary Poppins mould (minus the schmaltz). It’s through him that many of Falardeau’s ideas are nimbly explored.
The kids, meanwhile, are nothing short of mesmerising. Of them all, first-timer Sophie Nélisse gets top marks – her shell-shocked student forms a touching bond with her teacher, and her emotional monologue is a guaranteed nose-blower.
Anticipation: A certain American awards body went seriously nuts for this one. 3
Enjoyment: A class act. Touching but never sentimental, Lazhar is a sensitive, hopeful treaty on grief and innocence lost. 4
In Retrospect: A timely examination of violence in our society through the eyes of those who can’t control it. 4