I fear no words can do this extraordinary film adequate justice. A Foreign Language Film nominee for this year’s Academy Awards, it simultaneously filled (to the brim) and broke my heart. Quiet and gently-paced, director and screenwriter Phillippe Falardeau’s film is an exquisite depiction of the universality of loss and grief. None of us, no matter our age or circumstances, are immune to tragedy touching our lives. Yet in that sobering reminder, there is also a message of hope, for through that shared experience is great potential for healing.
Monsieur Lazhar has fled his native Algiers (for reasons to which we become privy) for Montreal, Canada, where he is seeking asylum. He convinces the principal of a grade school to hire him as the replacement for a well-loved teacher who has committed suicide in her classroom (the reveal of which is tastefully handled, so please don’t let that bit of information dissuade you from seeing this lovely and powerful film).
It is deeply moving to witness the relationships that develop between this kind, gentle, patient man and his classroom of students, as well as the ways in which they are ultimately able to help one another to cope and come to terms with the emotions they are each experiencing. There is something so pure and honest about what unfolds between this teacher and his pupils ~ they all possess both innocence and innate wisdom in relation to their grief, regardless of age or experience. And thus the lines between teacher and student are touchingly blurred.
Mohamed Fellag (who goes simply by Fellag) plays Bachir Lazhar so beautifully, a mere expression on his face could ~ and did ~ reduce me to tears. The genuine goodness of this character’s heart is evident and palpable ~ in everything he says and does on screen. Fellag’s performance is poignantly subtle and skillfully nuanced. His open, inviting face, his sweet smile, the sadness behind his eyes ~ all made me want to embrace this dear tender soul. He is perfection as Monsieur Lazhar.
And the children, oh, the children. They are divine. The level of skill, talent and maturity these young actors display is astonishing. They are truly phenomenal ~ so real, so believable, so heartbreaking in the various ways they grapple with the emotional fallout of the terrible event to which they have been exposed. I was in awe of them, particularly of the two lead child actors, Sophie Nélisse and Émilien Néron, who play Alice and Simon, respectively (incidentally, the only two who actually witness the aftermath of the incident). The angelic faces of these children are ingrained in my mind’s eye. I had every bit as much of a desire to embrace them as I did their beloved new teacher.
Monsieur Lazhar would undoubtedly be on my Top Ten list for the year…if not of all time. To borrow from a recurring (and poetic) metaphor within the film, this rare little gem of film-making emerges from its chrysalis into the beautiful butterfly it is. Don’t miss it. (But bring along tissues.)