By Caryn James | James on Screens April 13, 2012 at 9:02AM
Monsieur Lazhar may have lost the Best Foreign Language Oscar to A Separation – I can’t argue with that; A Separation is extraordinary – but if any film could have given it a real challenge, it might have been this unexpectedly powerful, subtle little film from Canada: exquisitely made, enormously moving and politically-charged. Don’t be put off by its hokey-sounding subject: a substitute teacher takes over a class. This gem from director Philippe Falardeau is far from the inspirational snooze that description suggests.
The story is set off by a tragedy in a Montreal middle school – not the gunshots-in-the-classroom kind of violence we’re now accustomed to hearing about on the news, but a singular, quiet suicide discovered by one of the children. At that moment, when the school desperately needs a new teacher, M. Lazhar appears as if by magic, an immigrant from Algeria who volunteers for the job.
Fellag, the actor who goes by one name, is a wonder as Lazhar, quietly dignified and tender, but not in some warm-and-fuzzy way. You would never guess that Fellag’s reputation rests on his work as a comic actor of one-man shows.
Lazhar has profound secrets and tragedies in his past, which we slowly learn. And it turns out that the two children the film focuses on, Simon and Alice, have their own hidden problems. Simon is carrying a guilty secret. Alice, who is deeply hit by the tragedy, is the child of a single mother who works as an airline pilot and is rarely home. Falardeau gets terrifically natural performances from his child-actors, especially cherub-faced Sophie Nelisse as fatherless Alice, who develops an innocent schoolgirl crush on Lazhar.
In a very tiny role, Alice’s mother is played by Evelyne de la Cheneliere, who wrote the one-man play on which the film is based. Falardeau’s film is so gracefully cinematic there is no hint that it began as a 75-minute monologue. Look carefully at the early scene in which the tragedy is discovered and you’ll see all the delicate, flawless choices he has made about point of view, about what and how his camera should see.
Eventually the film takes on issues including immigration and an educational system so bound by rules that a teacher cannot give a student an encouraging pat on the head, much less a hug. But there is nothing didactic or heavy-handed about Falardeau’s use of these themes.
Monsieur Lazhar is his fourth film, but the first to get a theatrical release in the U.S. And he has taken an amusing career path. In the early 1990’s he was on a Canadian reality show called Race Around the World, in which contestants were given a camera and sent around the globe to make 20 short documentary films in less than a month – it was like The Amazing Race with short docs. After winning the race, Falardeau was on his way as a director - so that’s one good thing about reality TV.