This Canadian film, a favourite at both the Sydney Film Festival and the Melbourne International Film Festival, introduces the character of Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag, Top Floor Left Wing), an Algerian immigrant living uncertainly in Montréal. He is the only candidate to apply for a teaching position in a Québécois grade school after a tragic incident. Teaching a class of traumatised children unable to express their feelings, sees the gentle Bachir schooling the pre-teens in how to deal with sadness and loss. This is an inspiring teacher film, minus the saccharine after-taste. Director/writer Philippe Falardeau (the film is based on a one-man play by Évelyne de la Chenelière) is reluctant to sensationalise the story and instead opts for a real sense of tenderness and fragility.
Falardeau is blessed with an incredible cast. Fellag is beautiful as Bachir. Subtlety weighting his performance, Fellag presents a character who has suffered tragedy, without making him tragic. As compelling as Fellag is, this film is reliant on its younger cast and they are exceptional. The group of young actors found to portray M. Lazhar’s sixth grade class are a fabulous bunch of character actors, with two brilliant central stand outs- Sophie Nélisse who plays the wise-beyond-her-years Alice and Émilien Néron as the troubled Simon.
Alice and Simon represent different interactions teachers can have with their pupils, highlighting a major story current running beneath the film’s grander themes of loss and immigration, modern teaching. The film questions the role of the teacher in a child’s life and where the boundaries should be for educating them in terms of behaviour and morality. Whilst current trends in teaching allow some of the teachers at the school to explore curriculum topics in new and engaging ways, the more traditional M. Lazhar is horrified to find his class unable to complete dictations and unfamiliar with classic French literature.
Monsieur Lazhar treads difficult territory with a light and deft touch, opening question for audiences without pretending to be the moral final answer. This is a film that pushes you to the point of heartbreak, but still leaves you a sense of optimism at the end. Monsieur Lazhar could have easily become an over-wrought melodrama in the wrong hands, but thankfully delicacy wins out with Falardeau going for poignancy over gut-punches, giving the story true pathos. You’ll be hard pressed to find a more rewarding cinema experiences this year.
Monsieur Lazhar was released in Australia on September 6th
Director: Philippe Falardeau
Cast: Mohamed Fellag, Sophie Nélisse, Émilien Néron