A one-act monologue about a 50-something, immigrant substitute teacher who takes over a Montreal primary-school class coping with the recent suicide of its regular teacher seems unlikely fodder for a feature film, let alone a crowd-pleaser.
But Monsieur Lazhar, filmmaker Philippe Falardeau's adaptation of Évelyne de la Chenelière's stage play, has been gathering audience and jury kudos – including an Oscar nomination this week for best foreign-language film – ever since its world premiere last August at the Locarno Film Festival.
It's an exquisite, humanistic and subtly topical work of cinema art that manages to keep the intimate, revelatory sensibility of a one-man play intact while fleshing out the characters and creating a very realistic and richly detailed school community. And it's those little details – visual touches, satisfying tidbits of backstory, flashes of humour and fleeting gestures – that add heft and complexity to the film's otherwise straightforward story.
Falardeau's previous film, It's Not Me, I Swear!, opens with a hanging – the rambunctious young protagonist is trying out a new way to get his mother's attention and everything in the scene is about setting a tone of playful dark humour. Monsieur Lazhar also opens with a hanging, but in this case it's a horribly tragic jolt that reverberates throughout the film.
A Grade 6 pupil, Simon (Émilien Néron), is alone in the hushed corridors, delivering milk to his classroom during recess and walks in to find his teacher's body dangling from a light fixture. Simon's friend, Alice (Sophie Nélisse), is the only other classmate who catches a glimpse, as the teachers hustle the kids back outside.
Of course a grief counsellor is hired. The classroom is stripped of decoration and repainted. The worn-out principal (Danielle Proulx) knows the kids need to return to class soon but days pass. Finally, in what feels like a desperate move, she hires Bachir Lazhar (the wonderful Fellag), an Algerian immigrant who literally walks in off the street with his resumé.
With his formal manner, different-sounding French and very tentative grasp of the curriculum, Bachir is, at first, a curiosity to both the kids and the school's mostly female staff. Falardeau definitely has fun with the fish-out-of-water idea but never lets the jokes get too broad. As Bachir's warmth and intelligence gradually win everyone over, we learn in a couple of brief but effective scenes that he has moved to Montreal from Algeria to escape real danger following a personal tragedy.
Bachir keeps his story to himself but we know it's what makes him the right man for the job – not teaching, but helping the kids, in particular Simon and Alice. Their teacher's suicide has created a rift in their friendship that becomes increasingly confrontational as the film moves forward, and Bachir – who has been expressly told not to interfere with the school's healing process – is the only adult close enough to spot it.
Later in the film, Bachir is alone working late during a school dance. He starts moving to the music, clearly enjoying himself, and a female teacher, who has become a friend, watches with a smile before announcing her presence. It's a wonderful, surprising little scene that catches you off guard because it's strangely momentous. You know right then that, somehow, the kids are going to be alright.
And Monsieur Lazhar itself definitely catches you off guard. In a way, there's not much to the story, yet the film artfully takes you through a breadth of human experience that makes it truly unforgettable.
Monsieur Lazhar opens in Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Charlottetown on Jan. 27; Saskatoon, Feb. 3; and Ottawa, Feb. 24. More Canadian dates to follow.
Special to The Globe and Mail
- Directed by Philippe Falardeau
- Screenplay by Philippe Falardeau
- Starring Fellag, Sophie Nélisse, Émilien Néron, Danielle Proulx and Brigitte Poupart
- Classification: PG
- 4 stars