A version of this review appeared in The Age, September 6, 2012.
At a Montreal primary school, a troubled teacher commits suicide; a young boy peeps into the classroom and spies her hanging above one of the desks. Staff and students react with shock. In the midst of the uproar, a curly-haired, middle-aged gentleman (Mohammed Fellag) arrives without warning at the principal's office, introducing himself as Bachir Lazhar, an experienced teacher originally from Algeria. While expressing his sorrow, he politely points out that there's a vacancy to be filled. Could he be the man for the job?
Lazhar is something of an enigma, and much of the pleasure of Philippe Falardeau's film lies in the unfolding of his reserved yet impulsive personality. As a teacher, he's neither an obvious phony nor a maverick who challenges the system. If anything, his approach is rather old-fashioned: there are gaps in his knowledge (he doesn't seem to speak English) and he's not above cuffing a pupil when his patience gives out. Yet as Falardeau unobtrusively shows us, he's wholly committed to his profession, and as serious about literature as he is about treating young people with respect.
There's a lot of humour in the exchanges between Lazhar and his class; though Fellag has a greater expressive range, his upright posture and economical gestures remind me of Nanni Moretti, the brilliant Italian comic most recently seen in We Have A Pope. As it happens, the subject of Monsieur Lazhar is one which Moretti has tackled on several occasions: how to get through the aftermath of a traumatic event. In his own restrained way, Lazhar is bent on coaxing his pupils to face their teacher's death head on. It's not hard to guess that he too has a tragedy in his past, though it's a while before we're given all the pieces of the puzzle.
In summary, Monsieur Lazhar may sound like a painfully contrived tearjerker. But if Falardeau is not ashamed to push audience buttons, he does so with unusual tact. His style is deliberately sedate: the camera is generally at eye-level, the widescreen compositions carefully balanced. Moreover, the script is explicitly concerned with issues of decorum – with the question of how much formality or intimacy is appropriate at any moment. For example: when, if ever, is it acceptable for a teacher to hug a pupil? By the time it gets round to an answer, Monsieur Lazhar has earned our tears.