REVIEW BY: Shezre McMurray
RELEASED: May 4
Nominated for best foreign language film at this year’s Oscars, Monsieur Lazhar is a French Canadian drama set in a Montréal primary school in the throes of tragedy.
Based on the one-man play Bashir Lazhar by Evelyne de la Chenelière, the film shows a group of students attempting to understand and cope with the suicide of their beloved teacher, Martine.
The only person to offer their services as a replacement is Algerian refugee Bachir Lazhar, played by comedian Mohamed Fellag with a vulnerability and gentle humour.
The classroom is repainted and every reminder of Martine removed as the children begin anew with the palpably foreign Monsieur Lazhar. But it isn’t only the children who are attempting to heal; their new teacher is also recovering from an equally traumatic event.
The film addresses a variety of complex themes – death, violence, healing, multiculturalism and bureaucracy – from the perspective of these careworn yet vibrant children, their parents and their teachers. Director Philippe Falardeau delicately handles such complex and dark themes gently, avoiding sentiment, never directing our emotions.
The school is awash with symbols of diversity – from the children’s names to a girl wearing a hijab in the playground (but the same red shoes as her white Canadian classmate) to a pupil continually trying to speak to Lazhar in Arabic rather than French.
As such, this is a scathing indictment of political correctness and overregulation. While Lazhar develops a strong paternal relationship with his student Alice, (played with confidence and maturity by Sophie Nélisse), only a qualified psychologist may touch the children; the penalty for any teacher who does not comply is heavy – be it for discipline, for comfort or to help them through their grief.
This is a poignant and powerful film; multi-layered, slow burning and filled with understated drama, Falardeau guiding us simply and elegantly from one revelation to the next, combining stark realism with gentle idealism. This is touching, shocking and thought-provoking enough to linger long after the credits.