By Richard von Busack
You can recognize the shape of the Canadian Oscar nominee Monsieur Lazhar (showtimes and tickets here) at 500 yards. It follows the pattern of legions of films from Goodbye Mr Chips to Ciao Professore!, complete with the emphasis on the seasonal change: a wintery classroom giving way to leafy summer as the school year ends.
Director/writer Phillipe Falardeau reflects a cosmopolitan Montreal in the story of Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag), a widower Algerian immigrant. He steps up to take the place of a beloved teacher who hung herself right in the classroom.
The 11-12 year old students assembled here are seriously adroit kid actors. Sophie Nelisse is the winsome Alice, the teacher’s pet; Emilien Neron is shrewd as the boy who likes Alice, but who has been acting out ever since he found his teacher dead. Vincent Millard is the fatter aggro boy who loves to play “King of the Hill” in the snow; he has political tragedy in his own family background.
This special kind of tragedy is essential to Lazhar’s own story, too. It’s part of Monsieur Lazhar’s restraint that the teacher guards his personal history from others. We only really learn Lazhar’s backstory during his sessions with the jesting-Pilate types who work on the Canadian refugee board. (One is vastly amused and affronted that the greenhorn Lazhar dared to apply for help from “The Republic of Quebec.”)
Monsieur Lazhar is minor, and it’s as episodic as any pedagogical drama ever made. Heavy on interiors, it insists Lazhar’s life is all in the schoolroom. The teacher tries to teach classic French lit, such as Balzac’s La Peau de chagrin to children learning their verbs. So almost as a side story, the film notes how Quebec tries to preserve its Francophone qualities in the midst of a continent full of some 300 million English speakers. We’re likely meant to notice that in a moment of stress, the school’s principal says a familiar English four-letter word instead of “Merde.”
Fellag’s dry performance makes Monsieur Lazhar an enigmatic character: a born teacher, reserved, old-worldly, funny, but ready to shut out his colleagues if they get too close. Fellag’s covert acting goes beyond simple tragedy. It becomes a study of a grave, walled in, and perhaps even limited man.
Two groups would seem to be particularly taken by this film. Parents are one: despite the suicide, the Quebec school here is so startlingly well run and trouble-free that it provides fantasy material for Californians. And Monsieur Lazhar discusses a constant matter of anxiety for teachers: how to handle children seeking reassurance and affection.