It's difficult doing what "Monsieur Lazhar"does, conveying the delicate reality of human emotions in a way that engages without being overdone, but this French-language Canadian film makes it look like child's play.
The story of how an Algerian substitute teacher in French-speaking Montreal and his middle-school class help each other confront the presence of death in life, this film deals almost casually with a range of issues and themes, handling with a light and even affectionate touch weighty subjects like grief, guilt, community and love.
Written and directed by Philippe Falardeau, a Canadian director not much known in this country, and taken from a play by Évelyne de la Chenelière, "Monsieur Lazhar" has certainly been rewarded for its success. It received a foreign language film Oscar nomination (losing to"A Separation") and won six Genies, the Canadian Academy Award, including best picture, direction, adapted screenplay and a pair of acting nods.
One of those acting awards went to Algerian-born French actor Fellag, whose sure and empathetic performance as the title character sets the tone and ensures that nothing we see is less than direct and sincere.
Fellag's character, full name Bachir Lazhar, appears, as he says, "on his own initiative," at a Montreal school that has suffered a much-publicized tragedy. One teacher has hung herself in the classroom, leaving her class of 11- and 12-year-olds both thunderstruck and bereft.
Presenting himself in the office of the principal, Mrs. Vaillancourt (Danielle Proulx), Lazhar say he's a naturalized Canadian citizen who taught for 19 years in his native Algeria. His French is impeccable, his caring nature and love of children unmistakable, and the job is suddenly his.
Monsieur Lazhar's class is lively enough to be a handful under any circumstances, but it is especially so now. Their teacher's suicide in that very space has cast a deep shadow, and though the children insist that the adults in the school are more troubled than they are, this is not necessarily the case.
Especially upset are the two children who actually viewed the body. Even Alice (wonderfully played by Genie supporting actress winner Sophie Nélisse), used to coping because her single-parent airline-pilot mother is often away, is disturbed. She also seems to be irritated at Simon (Émilien Néron), a classmate who is her close friend and who seems to feel a connection to what happened.
Monsieur Lazhar, for his part, is initially consumed by finding his footing in the classroom. His ideas about grammar and desk arrangement are decidedly old school, the dictation he has the students write is too hard for them, and he is uncertain about the zero-tolerance-for-touching policy that, one colleague says, makes teaching "like dealing with radioactive waste."
But as we gradually find out, Lazhar has crises of his own to deal with, a fraught history that has also made him emotionally fragile. Added to this are the perplexing difficulties of a cultural transplant, someone who may know the language but doesn't know what to make of a bowl of Rice Krispies squares.
What is most effective about "Monsieur Lahzar" is the natural, unforced but unmistakable way these two sides of the coin, the teacher and the students, help each other cope with the different but related issues of memory, regret and healing they face.
Artfully put together by writer-director Falardeau, "Monsieur Lazhar" shows us life in the round, illustrating the way humor, compassion and tragedy can all be elements of experience. Its emotional honesty is heartening, a lesson we are never too old to learn.