Monsieur Lazhar takes place at what seems like an idyllic Montreal primary school, where the height of mischief before the bell rings involves Simon (Émilien Néron) playfully swiping the winter hat off of good-natured classmate Victor (Vincent Millard). Simon, as milk monitor of the day, is the first to arrive to class, where he is horrified to find his teacher has committed suicide. Alice (Sophie Nélisse) sees the scene, too, before the children are herded away, the classroom repainted, and the search for a new teacher begins. The kids are going to need more than a substitute, but the Québécois school system might be too heavily regulated to allow an educator to be the savoir they need.
Enter Bashir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag), an Algerian expatriate who visits the school after reading about the teacher’s death. Bashir has some problems of his own. He had to leave his activist wife and family behind to set up refuge in French-speaking Canada. A lone dissident, he nonetheless impresses the faculty and becomes the kids’ new teacher. The students are mostly well-behaved, but some are having trouble dealing with post-traumatic stress as Bashir adjusts to his predecessor’s customized teaching methods and the system’s stringent student-teacher interaction codes.
Director Philippe Falardeau uses a delicate touch adapting Évelyne de la Chenelière’s play into an Oscar-nominated film. It lost the Best Foreign Language award to Iran’s A Separation earlier this year, and like the winner offers a somewhat ambiguous ending. It doesn’t really leave strings untied, though; we are left to wonder about Lazhar’s fate, but his destiny and role in the children’s lives is graciously fulfilled. Falardeau had the good fortune to work with a powerfully effective ensemble cast, and Martin Léon’s minimalist ambient score helps set the mood for a satisfying story about the healing effect brief encounters can have on emotional scars. MATT KELEMEN