Writer-director Philippe Falardeau earned an Oscar nomination earlier this year for this deeply moving picture about an Algerian refugee awaiting asylum who enriches the lives of grief-stricken kids at a Montreal elementary school.
Death is something no one ever wants to discuss. When it comes to someone close, it’s almost instinctual that we enter a state of denial, pretending it never happened. But it did happen – and it hurts, deeply. So whom do we reckon with? That’s the lingering question propelling writer-director Philippe Falardeau’s beautifully poignant “Monsieur Lazhar.” It’s simply one of the best films you’ll see in this, or any, year because it speaks so openly and honestly about one of life’s most taboo topics. Yet death is very much a part of life. We’d prefer that it takes us at a ripe old age, but that’s not always the case. War, cancer, auto accidents, shootings, stabbings are among the many means the Grim Reaper has of ruining our idyllic plans.
Still, in the back of our minds, we’re aware that a sudden, unexpected death is always a remote possibility. And we grudgingly accept it. But there’s nothing – and I mean, nothing – to prepare us for when a loved one takes their own life, as is the case in “Monsieur Lazhar.” We don’t even know Martine Lachance when we first see the Montreal elementary school teacher dangling from the ceiling of her 6th-grade classroom, but we easily share the grief her students are suddenly faced with. And it’s a connection that only grows stronger as the film progresses and we witness eggshell-stepping parents, teachers and administrators repeatedly turning their backs on the kids when they need them most.
Enter their savior in the form of the handsome, enigmatic Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag), an Algerian refugee who reads about the incident in the paper and rushes to the principal’s office eager to claim the job nobody wants, which is replacing Martine. His motivations are murky initially, but when they come to light, it is devastating; as is the entire film, which is guaranteed to have you reaching for the Kleenex from the midpoint on. Don’t, however, get the idea that “Monsieur Lazhar” is maudlin and depressing. It’s actually quite the opposite, as it fills you with hope and inspiration. It’s also quite funny, especially when the North African and Canadian cultures clash inside the classroom, as is the case when Bachir is shocked to learn that is collection of 11- and 12-year-olds have no idea of how to comprehend Balzac.
Mostly, though, the movie is dispassionately comforting, as it vividly creates a communal mourning process while also subtly reminding us just how good we have it over denizens of despotic, war-torn nations like Algiers, where Bachir was forced to flee for his life. That’s not to say the West is without its own restrictions on freedom, as Bachir learns when warned that demonstrative behavior is as off limits in the classroom as talking about death. “How do you teach a child to use the pommel horse,” complains the gym coach, “when you’re not allowed to touch them?” Falardeau also calls into question other topical issues such as rigid curriculums and parents who instantly go on the defensive when you mention their child’s shortcomings. But the main focus rarely strays from the central conceit, which is Bachir’s evolving relationship with his grief-stricken students.
Because there are no familiar faces among the largely Canadian cast, the verisimilitude is off the charts, a sense of realism further enhanced by the naturalness displayed by a bevy of child actors led by Sophie Nelisse as Alice and the equally sensational Emilien Neron as Simon, classmates whose once-tight relationship rapidly deteriorates in the wake of Martine’s suicide. The mystery behind that rift proves to be as intriguing as the one behind Bachir’s past. And as the pieces slowly fall into place, you cannot help but be rocked to the core.
Much of the credit for that goes to Fellag, whose performance is so perfectly modulated that it’s a shame that he didn’t get an Oscar nod along with the film, which was nominated in the best foreign language category. It’s a turn you won’t – and should not – forget in a movie that quietly reminds that grief is the one true emotion shared by every culture, every nation and every religion from now until forever.
MONSIEUR LAZHAR (PG-13 for mature thematic material, a disturbing image and brief language). Cast includes Mohamed Fellag, Sophie Nelisse and Emilien Neron. Written and directed by Philippe Falardeau. 4 stars out of 4.