Monsieur Lazhar opens with a Michael Haneke-like tableau: a wide shot of a Montreal schoolyard with children playing at recess. Everything seems normal, but something is terribly amiss. After an enigmatic exchange between a couple of kids, one of them, a boy named Simon, goes inside the school to perform his assigned classroom chore of delivering the day's milk to his room. When Simon arrives with the milk, we see the lifeless body of his teacher hanging from the ceiling of the classroom. As in a Haneke film, the moment isn't an occasion for frenzied close-ups and sawing violins. Instead, the camera lingers in the empty hallway as Simon runs off to alert adults. Meanwhile, recess is ending and the children are returning to their desks. In this way, tension builds until, fortunately, the teachers are able to react quickly enough to keep all but one of the students, Alice, from seeing the dead teacher.
This faultlessly paced opening scene certainly sets its narrative hooks in the viewer, but the rest of Philippe Falardeau's film, nominated for a best foreign film Oscar, is comparatively normal, thoughtful without being especially provocative, dramatic without being particularly surprising. After the opening death, Bachir Lazhar, an Algerian immigrant, hustles his way into the job over the reservations of the school's prim principal. Lazhar (played by the Algerian-French actor Fellag) takes charge of the devastated group of 12-year-olds, a middle-class, generally well-behaved bunch, and treats them to his old-fashioned pedagogy (the Balzac that he insists on reading aloud to his students is met with bewilderment and derision as "prehistoric French").
The film is a tale of healing—for the children, who despite their material comfort are suffering from emotional neglect, and for Lazhar, who is applying for political asylum after suffering a terrible trauma in Algeria. The performances by adults and children alike are appealing (Sophie Nélisse and milien Néron are very good as the key children, Alice and Simon), but the script, which Falardeau adapted from a one-person play by Evelyne de la Chenelière, feels just a little short on invention. The story that Lazhar tells the immigration court is vivid but somehow unconvincing, more a dutifully researched backstory than a life that was actually lived. This is a sharp contrast to last year's more memorable Incendies, another French-Canadian film about a political refugee from the Arab world.
Perhaps the most interesting theme of Monsieur Lazhar is its dramatization of a Canadian, or Québécois, educational philosophy that has turned the children into fragile flowers who must not be touched by the adults and must not be allowed to reckon honestly with death and loss. The point is made in an early scene when Lazhar casually cuffs a sassy kid over the head; the children are shocked by this display of Old World schoolroom discipline, and one of them demands that he apologize. While the banning of corporal discipline may be uncontroversial, the school's prohibitions on teacher-student contact take on a darker hue as the film progresses. There are good reasons for restricting physical contact between teachers and students, but Monsieur Lazhar suggests that today's middle-class children may need something from their teachers that they're not getting at home—love.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Straight outta North Africa."