Monsieur Lazhar
Directed and Written by Philippe Falardeaw
Starring: Mohamed Fellag, Sophie Nelisse, Emilien Neron, Danielle Proulx

This French-Canadian movie was deprived of an Oscar because it was up against an equally good film, THE SEPARATION. But it’s a very fine film. As a side note, it was wonderful to see real snow in a movie, equally gratifying to see that the lives of teachers and children could be presented with the belief that such a topic mattered. That we would find it of interest. I also enjoyed the glimpse into French-Canadian life—I can’t remember a film from that province before this.

PLOT: When their teacher hangs herself, a class of school children is traumatized by the event. Their new teacher, Monsieur Bachir Lazhar (Fellag), appears like Mary Poppins. At first he seems too stern, too old-fashioned and expecting too much. But the children cope in the way they always do. He soon manages to win most of them over despite his rather sterile classroom, his rigidity, his foreignness.

Two children (Nelisse, Neron) in particular, have been traumatized by the suicide. Both saw the teacher hanging in their classroom and both had special relationships with her. We learn eventually Monsieur Lazhar’s own story, which is just as tragic as the woman he replaced. He is seeking asylum after some horrific events in Algeria.

This film spends a lot of time in the classroom unapologetically. It also examines the issue of whether teachers should be able to touch children. In this Montreal school, teachers may not even put a hand on a head or back. Hugs are definitely verboten. We understand the reason for this, but kids need hugs—especially with single-parent families where a male figure is often absent. A very difficult topic.

No one will fail to fall in love with Bachir Lazhar and Mohamed Fellag won the Canadian equivalent of the Oscar, a Genie, for this performance. Sophie Nelisse won the supporting actress award too.

The ending, neither happy nor tragic, feels right for a movie that had moments of sunshine and moments of gloom. Highly recommended.

Patti Abbott
Be sure to stop by to check out Forgotten Books every Friday as well as other thoughts, comments and reviews. A collection of her stories, Monkey Justice (Snubnose Press) can be found on Amazon.