If there was a word to describe “Monsieur Lazhar” that word would be compassion. That’s certainly what the teacher has for his students throughout this picture. This isn’t just a story about a good teacher. It’s a story about a good man, as well, who is dealing with his own grief, while the children around him deal with theirs. “Monsieur Lazhar” the French-Canadian picture that was a nominee for Best Foreign Picture at the Oscars last year, presents us with a school community reeling from the suicide of one of their beloved teachers. One of the students, Simon (Emilien Neron) walks in on his teacher, who’s hanging from a rope in the classroom. Another young student, Alice (Emilien Neron) also gets a glance at the teacher. Seemly innocent, the two students develop a complicated relationship, as Simon feels responsible for the teacher’s death. Alice blames him for her beloved teacher’s death, as well. The school scrambles to find a replacement teacher, and quickly hires Bachir (Mohamed Fellag), who presents himself for the job soon after the teacher’s death.
The film takes place over one school year, as Bachir leads his new class through their grief and questions. Baschir, meanwhile, is trying to seek refuge, as his family was killed by terrorists back in his home country of Algeria. This sounds like a lot going on, and the film offers no easy answers. However, Bachir is such a kind man, that I smiled when good things happened to him. There’s also the case of the children, who are dealing with their grief. Simon and Alice especially are the focus of the story, and they are played with much complexity by the two young actors. Baschir is played by Mohamed Fellag, with kindness and compassion. He has an almost fatherly concern about his students and doesn’t want them to feel abandoned again. Mohamed Fellag is a popular comedian in Canada, but here he plays the dramatic role very well.
Unlike other movies about inspirational teachers, “Monsieur Lazhar” isn’t about a teacher making big speeches or standing on desks. Instead, it’s about a teacher having compassion through simple gestures. Instead of making big statements, he reads a sonnet to the class. He goes about his job teaching the class. When Alice reads a paper on her former teacher, he wants to pass it around the entire school because of the maturity she showed. He cares for Alice, and the rest of his students. There’s the question of dealing with grief, in this film. The school has the students meet with a child psychologist. The psychologist asks the teacher to leave the room while she talks to the students. Baschir is eager to get back in the classroom because he feels so protective of his students that he doesn’t even trust the child psychologist to fix their problems.
This might sound like another inspirational teacher film that deals with issues of grief and the teacher student relationship. However, writer/director Philippe Falardeau finds the right balance between innocence and a deeper issue at hand. The film unravels in an elegant and quiet fashion. Bachir, ever the traditionalist, sees the classroom as a safe haven for children. However, he also recognizes that a classroom can also be a place to learn more than just languages. The role of a teacher is to comfort as well as teach.
The principal tells Baschir that all touching must be avoided with the students; however, Baschir can’t help himself when Simon is blaming himself for his teacher’s death. He puts his hand on his shoulder, and tells him that it isn’t his fault. This leads to a final and wonderful scene that shows that sometimes all a kid needs is a comforting hug from a caring adult.