Poised between a documentary and a fable, Philippe Falardeau’s impeccable “Monsieur Lazhar” serves up the most satisfying drama of the season. As the oscar foreign campaign moved on, it seemed a toss up whether Canada’s “Mr. Lazahr” or Iran’s “A Separation” would win. As complex and satisfying a dysfunctional family story as “A Separation” is, It’s Falardeau’s delicate story of psychological healing that haunts me.
Falardeau’s deft adaptation of Evelyne de la Cheneliere’s one-man play “Bashir Lahzar” explores the grieving process, subtly depicts the dilemmas of immigration, and portrays childhood on the brink of adult realization. Played out against the ironies of over-protective child-rearing, the film gives props to beleaguered teachers caught up in the politically correct system; all in a relaxed minimalist style laced with revealing gestures, wit and a backstory texture most commonly found on stage. Camerawork, lighting, art direction artfully enrich Falardeau’s stripped down style. Ronald Plante’s camerawork is observational, a discrete fly on the wall. Martin Léon’s gentle piano score underlines the tentative emotions at play.
On a snowy winter’s day, sixth grader Simon (Émilien Néron) leaves his best friend Alice (Sophie Nélisse) to deliver cartons of milk. Running off to their home room he discovers their teacher Martine, has hung herself. Simon looks into the classroom and runs to find help. The camera waits by the door, never revealing what Simon’s seen. Sounds of children returning from recess get louder and closer, a teacher appears and heads them off, but not before Alice glimpses the terrible sight.
Students and teachers alike are distressed, but everyone finds it hard to acknowledge their grieving. A psychologist (Nicole-Sylvie Lagarde) is hired to help, but she’s unable to reach them. Simon, who had a troubled history with Martine, assuages his guilt with increasingly aggressive behavior, which even affects his relationship to BF Alice. Grave Alice internalizes her pain, trying to accept the idea of death and impermanence. Bachir Lazhar (Fellag), a middle-aged Algerian political refugee, hears about the school tragedy and applies for the job of a substitute teacher.
Trying to forget the loss of his activist wife and child (killed by terrorists as they fled Algiers) Lazharyearns to flex his parental muscles. The widow of a teacher, Lazhar feels ready for the job. He tells the principle, Mme Vaillancourt (Danielle Proulx) that he’s a seasoned teacher and legal immigrant. In truth the ex-restaurant worker is hoping for political asylum, to be allowed to stay in Canada. Practical Monsieur Lazhar ignores red tape, When Mme Vaillancourt explains the protocol of hiring, he counters, “I’m here. They need a teacher.” An envoy from the common sense era of Can Do, he comforts her as he will soon comfort his students. We see why she protects him even as she suspects and confirms that he’s been lying to her.
Desperate to find a replacement, overworked Vaillancourt, glosses over Mr. Lazahar’s lack of papers (he promises to get them from Algiers) and hires the eager worker. It’s Lazhar’s tragic loss that enables him, a stranger to Canadian schooling and lifestyle, to connect with and help to his wounding class.
Correct old-school Lazharformalizes his classroom. He breaks up the semicircle of desks and sets the students in straight rows. He gives them dictées of Balzac. Parents and students grumble but his crusty style is a brisk antidote to the rest of the faculty, who alternately blames troubled Simon for Martine’s suicide, or treats the kids like eggshells.
There’s the class goody-goody: type-A Marie Frederique corrects Lazhar for not following rules, and delights in reporting him to her parents. Overweight Boris, who fears being bullied on the school yard, suffers asthma and migraines. (We discover the childhood loss that traumatized him.)
There’s the Algerian kid Abdelmalek (Seddik Benslimane). Afraid to favor him, or perhaps worried that he’ll needs more skills than the other kids to succeed, Bachir chides him every time he speaks Arabic. Latch-key kids Simon and Alice need their parents. Babysitters can’t cope with the level of grieving they’re experiencing. Alice’s mother, an airline pilot, is out of the country when the suicide happens. In Falardeau’s sly script the PC school substitutes warm and fuzzy psychologists for hands on parenting, and, fearful of claims of abuse, forbids teachers to touch, hit or hug the students, even if the circumstance warrants it.
Warned against touching a child to comfort them, Lazhar’s reluctant to stop a game he thinks is out of hand, but he wipes Simon’s nose bleed and shares a story of his own youth. ( I thought of dire moments in my own childhood and the comforting teachers who held me when I’d been bullied, and grieved at the sea change.) All the dedicated teachers (including Gym teacher Gaston (Jules Philip) who’s disgusted that he can’t touch the students long enough to set them on a pummel horse) chafe at the new restrictions, but Lazhar just ignores them. Lazhar’s the only one who sees the human need to express the loss and grieving. He urges Mme Vaillancourt to publish precocious Alice’s essay about the suicide. She find the text violent. “It’s the theme. it’s life that’s violent not the text. you think Mlle Lachance respected her students by hanging herself in class?” argues Lazhar in a brilliant speech that must have been the centerpiece of the play.
Instead he’s warned to stay out of the healing process. Unable to process their own despair, the faculty’s made nervous by Lazhar’s no nonsense empathy. The frightened parents, particularly Alice’s parents, as helpless in their way as the kids, misread Lazhar’s common sense approach and mount a campaign against him.
Flashes of wit enliven the story. During a school dance, as music drifts upstairs, Claire (Brigitte Poupart), the English teacher, sees Lazhar dancing alone in his classroom. Charmed by his exotic background, she invites him to dinner.
Mohamed Said Fellag, himself a political exile in Paris, is well known as a comic actor writer and director in Algiers. Fellag’s low key portrayal of Lazhar tells volumes with grace notes, soulful eyes, the tentative smile of someone coming back to life, the depressed slump of his shoulders reminded me of the economical master Alec Guiness.
Falardeau’s orchestrated exquisite performances from the children. Émilien Néron is riveting in his frantic monologue. But it’s Sophie Nélisse’s Alice that gives Fellag his foil. With the wide eyed sunny charisma of a “Poltergist” era Drew Barrymore, she plays wise teacher’s pet. Alice needs Lazhar more than any other, and he responds in kind. The rest of the class turns in unforced organic performances. Stéphane Demers and Nathalie Costa register as Marie-Frédérique’s dissatisfied parents. Playwrite Evelyne de la Chenelière plays Alice’s mother. Happily, she thanks Mr, Lazhar for his support of her daughter. She’s the only one.
The film, for all its universal fibular quality, serves up a realistic ending. Lazhar and well intentioned Mme Vaillancourt pay the piper. Lazhar must leave his healing students before the year is up and Mme Vaillancourt must lose her best teacher. An innocent question in class opens the door to discussing the random unfairness of death, and despite the rules, Bachir encourages the kids to speak and process their grief. When Lazhar’s reported by irate parents, Mme Vaillancourt can no longer protect his secret. Her back to the wall, she tells him to get his things and leave, he begs to have a chance to say goodbye. “I won’t abandon them before the year is over. I cannot not say goodbye. Martine left without saying goodbye.”
How Lazahr tells his students goodbye is another gentle momentous scene. His tale of the randomness of death is a simple healing, his gift to the children. Felardeau cuts away before he tell them he’s leaving. In the corridor, grief stricken Alice sobs, and in a final act of disobedience, parental Lazhar hugs and comforts her. A marvel.