Time: 94 minutes
Director: Philippe Falardeau
Cast: Fellag, Sophie Nelisse, Emilien Neros, Danielle Prouix, Brigitte Poupart
Local release: 6 September, 2012.
This understated, compelling film begins in a primary school yard, on a cold winter’s day in Montreal, as young children are assembling for the start of school. One boy, Simon (Emilien Neros) goes in ahead of the others and discovers the body of his class teacher, hanging in their classroom.
The school community is thrown into chaos by this tragedy, not least because of the difficulty in replacing the well-loved teacher. When an Algerian immigrant, Bachir Lazhar (Fellag) applies for the position, he is readily accepted. His qualifications and experience are not checked – Headmistress Vaillancourt (Danielle Prouix) is more concerned about finding a substitute to take over the Year 6 class.
Monsieur Lazhar has a traditional approach to education, and to the children, he is quite a contrast to their former teacher. He insists that their room be arranged in straight rows of desks, that they be silent when he is speaking and that they show him respect. As time goes on, both teacher and pupils get to know one another, and it is clear that Monsieur Lazhar’s background, which he keeps very private, is of enormous assistance in helping the children recover from their own bereavement and grief. Two of the pupils who are suffering severely, Simon and Alice (Sophie Nelisse) benefit particularly from his approach, although others around the school don’t always agree with his methods.
Inspired by a play, Bashir Lazhar , Director/Writer Falardeau expanded on the original work, adding many characters and fleshing-out the one-man theatrical piece. The result is a restrained, sensitive and beautiful film that has won many awards around the world. As well as being an ode to teachers, it calmly explores children’s attitude to death and grief, while also looking at contemporary education practices and the value of words and honesty.
The performances of the three leads are exemplary, with both the young actors pulling off their challenging roles with ease. Interestingly, Fellag has a similar background to the character he plays in the film in that he, too, was forced to leave Algeria after being caught up in that country’s political turmoil. Since then has been based in Paris, where he is most well known in recent years as a rather extreme comedian. As such, he wasn’t an obvious choice to play the introspective, compassionate teacher, but he succeeds, skilfully capturing the complex Monsieur Lazhar.
Don’t miss this modest film. It will stay with you and resonate for weeks after viewing. Four stars.
Monsieur Lazhar is out in selected Australian cinemas in September 6. See its trailer below.