Set in a middle school in Montreal, even the brief playground scene before the titles signals the exceedingly careful and unobtrusive observation of the students as they interact. Soon 11-year-old Simon discovers the tragic event that propels the story. A beloved teacher has hanged herself in the classroom. Bachir Lazhar becomes the class’s new instructor for the rest of the winter term. On parallel paths, the students and Bachir work toward healing.
Restrained emotionally and yet incredibly powerful, the film is brilliantly shot with the camera most often at a respectful distance, still but revealing the crucial interactions. We are outsiders, watching through a window, from the doorway or from the side or back of the room. In fact, director Felardeau spent hours and hours doing just that, sitting in the back of classrooms observing sixth grade students to get them right—how they move, how they talk, how French is taught.
At the Palm Springs Film Festival, Felardeau said he wanted to poke at the system but not at the teachers. Indeed, some rules are clearly counterproductive, and instructors with different approaches succeed in their own comfort zone. Felardeau also said that while issues of immigration and political asylum are crucial for Lazhar, he didn’t want the film to focus on that, preferring to keep the emphasis on the students. Metaphors abound, all of them effective but never forced; for example, a chrysalis fable is deeply moving.
Ironically, the Algerian actor Fellag, who plays Lazhar with a forceful humanity, had to leave Algeria. His life was in danger because of his stand up comedy act. After seeing clips of Fellag’s act on YouTube, Felardeau cast Fellag for his presence and look.
Monsieur Lazhar earned a coveted slot as one of the five films nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar. In French with English subtitles. At a Landmark Theatre.