out of Five
Running time: 94
Impressively directed and superbly written, this is an emotionally engaging, deservedly Oscar-nominated drama with a terrific central performance from Mohamed Saïd Fellag.
What's it all about?
Directed by Philippe Falardeau, Monsieur Lazhar is based on the play by Évelyne de la Chenelière and is set in present-day Montreal. It opens as a young boy (Emilien Neron as Simon) on milk monitor duty stumbles upon the body of his teacher, who has committed suicide in the classroom. A week later 55 year old Algerian immigrant Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Saïd Fellag) shows up at the school and offers his services as a supply teacher and is gratefully employed by the stressed-out head teacher (Danielle Proulx), despite not being quite what he claims to be.
As Bachir bonds with the children and tries to help them through their recent tragedy, it gradually transpires that he is dealing with a traumatic incident in his own past. Meanwhile, Simon falls out with his best friend Alice (Sophie Nélisse) as he struggles with his perceived guilt over what he sees as his role in his last teacher's death.
Mohamed Saïd Fellag is excellent as Lazhar, generating touching chemistry with both the children and a fellow teacher who takes a shine to him (Brigitte Poupart as Claire). There's also terrific support from young Emilien Neron (his big emotional scene is heart-breaking to watch) and Sophie Nélisse, whose childhood relationship is extremely well observed.
The script is excellent, taking a low key approach rather than going for the full on heartstring-tugging you usually associate with Inspirational Teacher movies (“O Captain, my Captain” and so on). As a result, the classroom interactions feel believable and realistic, aided by some exceptional camerawork by Ronald Plante.
It's easy to see why the film was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar, as it skilfully addresses several themes (immigration, integration, guilt, the importance of communication, education and so on) without ever becoming preachy or sentimental. There are also several quietly devastating scenes, such as the superbly directed opening sequence (with tension mounting as pupils approach the horrific scene Simon has just witnessed) or Lazhar revealing the extent of his own personal tragedy.
With a terrific central performance from Mohamed Saïd Fellag, Monsieur Lazhar is an impressively directed and superbly written drama that packs a powerful emotional punch. Highly recommended.