Teachers in movies are either Mr. Holland or Mr. Hand. In dramas, they’re usually selfless heroes like Richard Dreyfuss in "Mr. Holland’s Opus." In comedies, they’re bumbling idiots or uptight authoritarians, like Ray Walston’s Mr. Hand in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”
"Monsieur Lazhar" is a moving film about teachers, but it’s not a rah-rah kind of film where classroom superheroes serve as educator, father, best friend, stand-up comedian and inspiration for their students. Instead, like the French drama "The Class" or the wonderful French documentary "To Be and To Have," the film understands the complex bond between teachers and students, and how the classroom is a sacred space they share for a short time before moving on.
The film starts with a horrifying moment, as a sixth-grade boy named Simon (Emilien Neron) enters school and discovers his favorite teacher has hanged herself in the classroom. It’s a chilling scene, particularly because writer-director Philippe Falardeau plays the scene very naturally, as we see the moment from Simon’s perspective, as he spots the teacher’s dangling body through the little window in the door. There’s a sickening feeling as the bell rings, and the other students start to pour into the school unwittingly.
Only one other student, a girl named Alice (Sophie Nelisse) sees the body, but the entire class is grief-stricken. The school principal opts to repaint the walls and try and move past the tragedy, mouthing the usual platitudes about the need for "closure." But the film shows how grief isn’t a big cathartic emotion you get over, but a low-wattage pain that pervades everything.
Someone who understands that well is Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag), an Algerian refugee who presents himself to the school as a substitute teacher for the class. With no other teachers willing to take the class, the principal agrees, and the film follows the remainder of the school year with the new teacher and his class.
Lazhar is somewhat formal and remote, and a little out of touch with the rhythms of a modern Canadian classroom. But he’s also a deeply caring man who knows the students need to be listened to and understood. And that they need a teacher.
All of the performances are beautifully understated, especially Fellag as Lazhar. The film slowly reveals the reason he’s so attuned to his students’ grieving, keeping his personal story separate from the goings on at the school. And the kids are wonderful, never striking a false or melodramatic note as they portray feelings unimaginable to most children.
In its quiet way, "Monsieur Lazhar" is unsparing in its critique of the modern educational system, where nervous fear of avoiding controversy often trumps wisdom and judgment. Teachers are afraid to touch their students for fear of being sued, administrators are afraid to raise controversial subjects like death that will disrupt the smooth bureaucratic flow of the school.
But Lazhar and his students know what really is worth fearing, and together, tentatively and respectfully, they create a quiet but powerful bond to help each other past their grieving.