When "A Separation" won the Academy Award for best foreign language film last month, I was thrilled -- Asghar Farhadi's splendid domestic drama is one of the best things I've seen in the past few years. But it also came as a genuine surprise, because I was convinced the Canadian film "Monsieur Lazhar" was going to win. Gentle and understated, Philippe Falardeau's film is a classy crowd-pleaser, the kind of mild effort that makes people shake their heads imagining what awfulness would be done to it in an American remake. It is also nothing to write home about, though it features a strong turn from Mohamed Saïd Fellag, who plays the title character, and some very good child performances.
"Monsieur Lazhar" is adapted from a play by Évelyne de la Chenelière about an Algerian immigrant, Bachir Lazhar, who's hurriedly hired at an elementary school to take the place of Martine, a teacher who committed suicide. She hanged herself in her classroom and the student who found her, a boy named Simon (Émilien Néron), and his best friend Alice (Sophie Nélisse), become the conduits through which we see the effect the incident is having on her class. The teachers, a caring and engaged bunch, are also deeply upset by the death of their colleague, though they prefer to focus their attention on the children rather than acknowledge their own emotional state -- "Everyone thinks we're traumatized, but it's the adults who are," Alice insists.
Lazhar claims a background of 19 years as a teacher in Algeria, though when he arrives in the classroom it's clear his background is very different -- he has the students line up their desks rather than have them in a semi-circle, he tries to have them do a dictation exercise using a piece from Balzac that's far beyond their capabilities, and he's a little stiff and formal. But that distance turns out to be helpful to the students, who are being treated like glass by the primarily female faculty but are also struggling with unacknowledged anger from many of them who blame Martine's history with Simon for her death.
Lazhar is not a "Dead Poet's Society"-style fiery inspirational teacher, though he slowly becomes a better one. What he does have to offer is a fresh perspective on an academic ecosystem that, like a well-meaning but dysfunctional family, is infected with unspoken resentments and distress. Lazhar isn't just a newcomer to the school, he's a newcomer to Canada, and his process of finding his place there is paired with his attempts to formalize his legal status in the country as his tragedy-filled background is unveiled. His path toward cultural assimilation is a little cutesy, though it brushes over a few ideas -- that, for instance, his foreignness makes him romantically appealing to a fellow teacher who's into travel and ethnic music, or that he refuses to answer the class' one Arabic-speaking student in anything other than French -- that are barbed and interesting.
Fellag, with his tentative posture and slightly unsure smile, is a charming and appealing figure, whether dealing with students (he observes a game of King Of The Hill in the snow, unsure whether he should intervene or if it's the norm) or the romantic advances of a fellow teacher who invites him over for dinner. He has his first encounter with Rice Krispie treats. And he has a great moment in which he announces the elephant in the room, the issue that everyone's been sidestepping -- that Martine's suicide was a tragedy, but her choice to end her life at the school and in a place where students were bound to find her was an act of selfishness and cruelty against the kids to which she'd been so devoted. It's the main stroke of drama in a film that otherwise often seems as much meek as it is restrained -- it's rare to see a film in which all of the characters are so nice, but it also provides challenges Monsieur Lazhar doesn't quite overcome. [B-]