Our society has often been called “death-denying,” one in which grief is suppressed and the inevitability of death ignored. Author John Fowles said, “Death’s rather like a certain kind of lecturer. You don’t really hear what is being said until you’re in the first row.” The children at a primary school in Montreal are definitely in the first row in Philippe Falardeau’s Monsieur Lazhar, the story of a sixth grade class in Canada attempting to deal with the emotional trauma resulting from the sudden and shocking loss of their teacher. Nominated for Best Foreign Language film at the 2012 Academy Awards, Monsieur Lazhar is an adaptation of Évelyne de la Chenelière’s stage play, and is produced by Luc Déry and Kim McCraw, the same team that gave us the Oscar-nominated “Incendies.” According to the jury at the Toronto Film Festival, it is “a film that explores loss, exile, and the truths we tell our children.”
Opening in a schoolyard in the middle of a snowy winter, Grade 6 pupils, Simon (Émilien Néron), and his friend, Alice (Sophie Nélisse), have run off to deliver milk cartons only to discover their teacher Martine Lachance has committed suicide, a discovery that leaves both children with profound emotional scars that will take a long time to heal. Because Simon had been a problem for his teacher, he blames himself for her death and takes out his guilt feelings by being overly aggressive towards other children. Unfortunately, the school can only think in terms of “professional” counseling, and a psychologist is hired to assist the distressed pupils, but she is ineffective in reaching them.
The classroom is redecorated and painted, yet the students are not moved to another room and the unseen presence of Martine looms large. Exhausted by the ordeal, the school principal, Madame Vaillancourt (Danielle Proulx), out of desperation, hires Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag), an Algerian refugee without papers or references, believing his story that he is a landed immigrant and has taught school for nineteen years, though in fact he has been the manager of a restaurant. Though getting off to a shaky start in class, dictating Balzac to the bewildered children, Bachir soon begins to handle the children’s emotions with greater awareness and sensitivity.
Operating under the severe restrictions of today’s over-protective culture, he is prohibited from hugging a crying child or even touching them for that matter, a prohibition that often works to the detriment of the child as well as to what the school is trying to accomplish. Though Bachir actually had not told the truth about his teaching qualifications in order to get the job, his ability to relate to the student’s trauma because of his own experience allows him to overcome his lack of training and meet the students on an equal playing field. Winner of the award for Best Canadian feature film at the Toronto Film Festival, Monsieur Lazhar is a low-key, low-budget, and often humorous film that observes rather than preaches, and, though the script offers many opportunities, avoids clichés and cloying sentimentality.
Marked by outstanding performances by Fellag, Proulx, and especially the children who are natural and unaffected, the characters are allowed to explore their own feelings without contrivance or manipulation. When the emotional moments come, they are all the more powerful because they arise naturally and not out of pre-designed plot points designed to provoke tears. Though we might wish for an ending akin to “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” the honesty of the film precludes it. While children’s hurt in this kind of situation may never be completely forgotten, with compassion, they may be able to develop a new awareness of the preciousness of life and the beauty of giving and receiving love. Monsieur Lazhar has pointed the way.