The hype-meisters of moviedom have made it difficult to use words like “heartwarming” and “inspiring” without sounding like a huckster…but when you see a film as moving and well-wrought as Monsieur Lazhar, it’s hard to resist. Yet what I admire most about the picture, which was an Oscar nominee this year as Best Foreign Language Film, is its restraint. Writer-director Philippe Falardeau has enough faith in his story, his actors, and most of all his audience, that he doesn’t feel the need to underscore or overstate his emotional points.
The setting is an elementary school in Montreal where a teacher has died. As her fellow teachers, students, and their parents try to process this disturbing turn of events, a man shows up in the principal’s office, offering to pick up the reins. His name is Bachir Lazhar, an Algerian immigrant who is looking for work and ready to face an awkward situation head-on. It is Monsieur Lazhar’s humanity, and willingness to reach out to his students, that propels this poignant story.
Monsieur Lazhar manages to weave humor into its essentially serious story and reveal layers of its characters’ personalities step by step. Yet one never sees the wheels turning, a credit to Falardeau and his deft adaptation of Evelyne de la Chenelière’s play which—you may be surprised to realize, after seeing the film—was a monologue by the title character. It’s equally startling to discover that the film’s leading actor, Fellag, is not an actor at all, but a stand-up comic.
Monsieur Lazhar is a richly rewarding film that deserves to find an appreciative audience. We see too few French-Canadian films here in the States, but if this and last year’s Oscar nominee Incendies are indicative, we’ve been missing out.