Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag) is a refugee seeking asylum in Montreal, Canada, after his wife and children were murdered by terrorists in Algeria. The former restaurateur decides to pass himself off as a teacher -a profession he observed his wife in for many years -and when Martine, a teacher at a local school hangs herself, the perfect opportunity presents itself.
Bachir’s motives could be viewed as morbid opportunism -something the head teacher initially suspects -but his reason for pretending to be a teacher comes from a desire to help. Bachir wants to help the staff and pupils of the Francophone school, come to terms with their grief over their troubled teacher’s suicide. Bachir believes he can guide them on their journey, due to his personal experiences.
The two children who are central to the film’s narrative are Alice (Sophie NÃ©lisse) and Simon (Ã‰milien NÃ©ron). Although it is Simon who discovers their teacher’s corpse, both children see the body. While Alice is (unsurprisingly) traumatised by what she sees, the 11-year-old Simon, is distressed but also wracked with guilt. The young boy accused Martine (the deceased teacher) of kissing him on the cheek -while comforting him -which led to disciplinary measures. Thus, Simon believes his teacher killed herself because he lied about his teacher’s attempts to comfort him.
Both young actors do a grand job, but Sophie NÃ©lisse as Alice, absolutely shines. In fact, it’s difficult to remember a film which features children so prominently and where there are so many outstanding performances. The children’s acting deserves high praise, because without their talent -or the director’s -the film would have failed miserably.
However, Bachir doesn’t just help the children with understanding their grief -the healing is mutual. But, and to the film’s credit, this plays out across the running time, and like in real life, the process is slow and gradual. There is no instant remedy.
Monsieur Lazhar provides a credible insight into grief and guilt, but rather impressively it does so without the slightest hint of sentimentality. Philipp Falardeau has crafted a beautiful film, eliciting excellent performances from both the young and old, and this is a real contender for ‘film of the year’, an absolute treasure -both subtle and poignant.