Even though the story remained interesting enough to see how to plays out, the film felt like it was coasting most of the way.
Nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language was Philippe Flardeau’s 2011 film Monsieur Lazhar. The film centers on a classroom that must deal with a recent tragedy of their beloved teacher. Helping them cope with the loss is their new replacement teacher who aims to win over his students. Lead by a fantastic performance from each cast member, Monsieur Lazhar is a refreshing take on the all too familiar classroom story.
On what seems to be an ordinary school day at a Montreal primary school, one of the young students in charge of bringing milk for the class that day attempts to enter the classroom but finds the door locked. As he peers through the window glass on the door he notices that something terrible has happened, the school teacher is hanging from the ceiling. The bell rings for the kids to come back inside but the teachers scramble to send the kids back outside so they do not see the disturbing scene.
After the incident the school repaints the classroom as if putting a new coat of paint in return means a fresh start. The school is not adequately staffed to have a full time teacher replacement on hand but a man named Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag) shows up after hearing about the news. Mr. Lazhar has taught students for 19 years in Algeria, where is he from. The decision to hire him was instantaneous.
Obviously, just covering up the walls with new paint is not enough to cover up what happened in that classroom. All of the children are well aware of the situation but now must go on with their new teacher Mr. Lazhar. They respond to him very well considering the circumstances. It is his job to continue on with the curriculum but most importantly reassure them that it was not their fault their teacher “left” without saying goodbye.
As you may come to expect, there is more to Mr. Lazhar’s personal life than he cares to tell. In fact, the only way we learn about it is through scenes in a courtroom where they vaguely describe why he really came to Montreal. I saw this as a missed opportunity to heighten the character development and emotional impact.
What Monsieur Lazhar lacked the most was conflict. The opening sequence contains the film’s largest conflict and nothing else in the film comes up to match that. Other than Lazhar’s personal life, as I mentioned before could have had more emphasis, the only other issue the film brings up is if the teachers suicide was linked to a particular student or not. Even though the story remained interesting enough to see how to plays out, the film felt like it was coasting most of the way.
The film did have a few strong points though. One of the strongest assets of the film was how natural everything occurs rather than contrived. It never went out of its way to introduce a situation that did not belong just for emotional sake. The film also benefited from outstanding performances from the entire cast but especially Mohamed Fellag, Sophie Nélisse, and Émilien Néron.
Monsieur Lazhar is about coping with grief and shame, both the students and the teacher deal with them for different reasons. The heart-wrenching story is hard not to like and even though it has some emotional impact, I cannot help but to think it had potential for more. In the final scene, Lazhar explains that some things end before their time in an effort to bring students hope and acceptance—but maybe for himself as well.