One of the most meticulous, detailed, and fully-felt movies I’ve seen in a long time, Monsieur Lazhar is the kind of film I’m always waiting to see. Director Philippe Falardeau gets both feel and tone exactly right, and from its opening scene until the credits, the film flows as a single experience, never less than intentional and full of purpose. While the story is loaded with contemporary relevance, it’s told so smoothly and with such involvement, we might not even realize we’re being handed a take on modern issues.
After a shockingly direct opening sequence establishes the tight-knit world of a Quebecois elementary school, that world is politely interrupted by a middle-aged Algerian man (Mohamed Said Fellag as the titular Monsieur Lazhar) with a comforting smile. The man walks uninvited into the office of the school administrator and applies for the position left open by a teacher who recently committed suicide. He has reasons for his brazenness, and good ones, but the movie takes its time making them plain. Meanwhile, he’s given the job and takes up the business of teaching a class of 13-year-olds whose teacher has just killed herself (one of them discovered her the morning after she hanged herself in their very classroom).
The students had a lot of affection for their former teacher, and their new one — the mysterious Algerian — has a lot to live up to. But the movie focuses far less on his troubles gaining their trust than it does on his helping them understand loss, and easily sidesteps Stand and Deliver- or Dangerous Minds-style tropes by focusing on what children go through when someone they trusted has unfairly left them. Lazhar offers real compassion, rather than speeches and tricks, to help the kids. One of the film’s major accomplishments is uncovering his secrets, his reasons for fleeing to Canada, through his growing connection with the children, rather than through any twist of plot. There is a central mystery to Monsieur Lazhar, but it has much more to do with why people feel than what they’ve done.
Algerian playwright Mohammed Said Fellag plays the teacher with both dignity and the smallest hint of something to hide. His reactions to simple questions from his colleagues betray a concern for personal privacy that makes the movie’s audience just as curious about him as the people who can’t get an answer. His mystery, the one about the immigrant teacher who arrives out of nowhere to save a class of grief-stricken kids, is eventually solved. But whatever the revelations about his past, Lazhar is convincing as a natural educator with that necessary combination of knowledge and love of kids.
It’s important that the subtle mysteries that spur Lazhar’s teaching, and consequently his relationship with the kids, not be revealed before seeing this movie. That’s how organically the two strands of plot — the personal history of the teacher and the grief process of the students — wind together. This is a movie about the real emotional connections that people can form if they attempt to commit themselves to one another. It’s not quite a masterpiece: a few of its plot necessities are less believable than they could have been, and a few of its scenes are played too broadly for such a sincere story. But it’s in that class of dramas infused with so much thought and care that they’re plainly unable to condescend to their audience. Leaving the theater, I felt very, very good.