An Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film last year, the Canadian film “Monsieur Lazhar” deals with the coping of death in an unusual setting – an elementary school classroom. A young and popular teacher has just committed suicide in her classroom, horrifying her young students. While a psychiatrist is brought in to help them deal with the tragedy, it seems that the school staff would prefer to make the issue go away by not discussing it at all. But the suicide has obviously deeply affected the children, particularly those who were close to her.
In comes her replacement, an immigrant from Algeria named Bachir Lazhar (Mohammed Fellag), who gets the job by claiming he has 19 years of teaching experience and is willing to work right away. His methods are immediately strange to the children and the mutual feeling-out stage between him and his students and colleagues is amusingly awkward. But one thing he is not afraid to do is discuss the death of their former teacher. He’s puzzled by all of the silence regarding the circumstances of her passing and encourages the students to speak about it, much to the chagrin of the school staff and parents. It turns out that he too is dealing with a personal tragedy and is in danger of being deported back to Algeria at any time.
“Monsieur Lazhar” sets itself up to be a much deeper film with possible secrets, cover-ups and scandals, and perhaps if this film had been made in the United States, all of those scenarios would have been come forward. But one of the charms of foreign films is that there is no need to complicate everything, and “Monsieur Lazhar” definitely succeeds at keeping things simple. While potential scandalous plot points are hinted at, they are never really addressed. Instead, the movie focuses on the relationship between Lazhar and the students. Two of his students are especially notable — the troublemaker Simon and teacher’s pet Alice, who both had a very close relationship with their former teacher. Lazhar’s connection with these two students is very endearing as he helps them come to terms with their loss.
“Monsieur Lazhar” isn’t a terribly deep film, and I wish that there had been more revealed about both the teacher’s suicide as well as Lazhar’s own refugee status in Montreal. But the performances by Fellag and the child actors, as well as their chemistry, make this a solid drama worth watching.
“Monsieur Lazhar,” 94 minutes, is Rated PG-13 and opens at the Consolidated Theatres Kahala 8 on Friday.