Inspirational stories about teachers changing the lives of their pupils are nothing new, though they are invariably heart-warming and moving. What sets this French-Canadian drama apart from the dead poets and dangerous minds, however, is its subtle plotting, exquisite photography and the sensational performances of its largely novice cast.
Algerian actor Mohamed Fellag plays the eponymous prof, a recent immigrant to Montreal having left his home country in the midst of terror and infighting. He volunteers to take on a class in the local school where the children and teachers are soldiering on in the wake of a tragedy. Carrying his own emotional baggage with quiet dignity, Monsieur Lazhar makes a lowkey entrance into the children’s lives and seeks to help them through their grief.
Thanks to naturalistic writing and sensitive direction by Canadian Philippe Falardeau, the film takes a simple though tragic premise and addresses the fallout with an almost documentary-like restraint. No need for soaring music and manipulative speeches – the film pulls its emotional punches, content to just perch on a desk and watch the characters’ faces. Fellag is pitch-perfect as the flawed Lazhar, while the children are revelatory, notably young Alice who is suffering from an absent mother, and troubled Simon who carries the weight of the world on his slight shoulders.
Monsieur Lazhar missed out on the Best Foreign Film Oscar but has earned multiple accolades as a gently touching, painfully authentic picture of that most noble of professions.