"Monsieur Lazhar" is the gripping tale of a Montreal grade school stricken with grief after a well-liked teacher commits suicide by hanging herself in one of the classrooms. The story centers on the titular character Bachir Lazhar, an Algerian immigrant with his own emotional troubles who is hired to replace her.
The Philippe Falardeau movie, which garnered an Oscar nomination for best foreign language film, excels in its subtlety. The movie does not have rapid plot twists or an explosive climax, but rather excels by showing the characters daily struggle to cope with grief in a strange situation.
The movie opens on a tragic note and flows through a range of other emotions that encapsulate the viewer. The film delicately develops the relationships between characters as the plot unveils around them. The entire movie is presented through a lens of authenticity, and nothing feels forced. “Monsieur Lazhar” delves into mournful topics with such honesty, but it still manages an uplifting feeling, though it never tries to wrench your heart with joy.
Algerian actor Mohamed Fellag plays Lazhar, who's backstory slowly unravels throughout the movie to reveal his personal tragedies and what motivated him to offer his services to the school. His character simultaneously deals with his own grief while helping his students overcome theirs.
The emotional strife does not ease Lazhar’s teaching style, however. Throughout the movie he addresses difficult and mature topics such as death, suicide and injustice with his students with a straightforward approach.
Though this seems inappropriate for students recovering from a tragedy, the film argues that children can handle and understand more than what adults credit them for. One of the most refreshing aspects of the film is its depiction of children as dynamic and mature characters. The line between adult and child is blurred throughout the movie. After all, only a naïve adult would believe that a fresh coat of paint in the classroom would remove such a traumatic event from a child’s memory.
One student says, "Everyone thinks we’re traumatized by Martine’s suicide, but it’s the adults who are really.”
Sophie Nélisse plays Alice, the intelligent and beyond-her-years student, superbly. Lazhar’s directness resonates with Alice and they develop a special bond as she attempts to overcome the struggle. She experiences particular strife, since she was one of two students to actually saw the teacher hanged.
The main characters lead the movie through the journey of the school’s attempt to heal. The film presents taboo topics in education such as teachers’ inability to be physically close with students even to give a hug for emotional support to a child coping with grief. It is the head-on and unapologetic approach to tackle difficult topics “Monsieur Lazhar” great.
Just like the grieving process itself, “Monsieur Lazhar” traverses through such a wide range of emotions with such grace that by the end, one would be hard pressed not to feel a little hopeful.