An Algerian immigrant faces a steep learning curve when he’s hired as a substitute teacher in Montreal in “Monsieur Lazhar,” the most polished and mainstream effort yet from Quebec scribe-helmer Philippe Falardeau (“Congorama”). Though set mainly indoors, this adaptation of Evelyne de la Cheneliere’s eponymous monodrama is neatly opened up cinematically, with some of the primary-school kids and fellow educators skillfully fleshed out. Quietly intelligent and respectable, much like its protag, pic has clear crowdpleaser appeal in the arthouse arena, as evidenced by its recent Locarno audience award win. Sales prospects look healthy.
Though named after its protag, pic opens with a schoolyard sequence involving impressionable pupil Simon (Emilien Neron) and his classmate Alice (Sophie Nelisse), who catch a glimpse of their teacher, who has just hanged herself in their classroom. Fast forward to a couple of days later, when the prim school director (Danielle Proulx) — in a move that reeks as much of desperation as of common sense — hires Bachir Lazhar (Fellag), who has offered his services as a substitute teacher after reading about the tragedy in the papers.
A recent arrival from Algeria, Lazhar comes armed with a resume that includes years of experience teaching in Algiers. But clearly, the upright yet soft-spoken man has a lot of adjusting to do, as the kids are still shaken by the death of their teacher, and the curriculum and mores of Francophone Canada are different from those in the Maghreb.
While the film explores issues of immigration, integration, education, responsibility and the greater good, its own lessons are not entirely clear-cut. Though some auds might fault the pic for taking the easy way out, it’s actually refreshing for a drama about education to look at different sides of an issue without necessarily imposing a moral high ground.
Indeed, “Monsieur Lazhar” is never as straightforward as it might at first appear, as suggested by d.p. Ronald Plante’s ever-so-slightly unsteady widescreen images. It’s apparent Lazhar is a fish out of the water, as he’s the school’s only male teacher, speaks French but not Quebec French, and is not aware of the latest developments in North-American pedagogy. It also emerges, in a plot strand that could have used some clearer parallels to amplify the drama, that Lazhar, too, is trying to get over a personal tragedy.
Little Simon has become withdrawn and sulky since his teacher’s suicide and is occasionally pestered by Alice. Their personal crises, though not the main focus, are well developed in relatively little screentime, and gains dramatic heft from the fact Lazhar is directly responsible for the pupils’ well-being. Treatment is typical of Falardeau’s naturally flowing adaptation, much like the bigscreen version of “Incendies,” also produced by Canuck outfit Microscope.
After working with young thesps in “It’s Not Me, I Swear!,” Falardeau again demonstrates a deft touch with child performers, while mono-monikered Algerian thesp Fellag (“Top Floor, Left Wing”) turns in a dignified performance that nonetheless feels just a smidgen too safe. Supporting cast is tip-top, while playwright de la Cheneliere makes a brief cameo appearance as Alice’s mother.
Below-the-line contributions are also solid, with the work of editor (and occasional helmer) Stephane Lafleur especially praiseworthy for its subtle cumulative force.
English-language press kit refers to pic as “Monsieur Lazhar,” though the onscreen title was simply “Bachir Lazhar.”