Canada's Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language film is the touching, wise and humanistic portrait of an Algerian immigrant who offers to substitute in a Montreal elementary school after the startling suicide of a popular teacher. With a wonderful central performance by Mohammed Fellag as the title character and a terrific script, Monsieur Lazhar should appeal widely to arthouse audiences and lovers of smart, international cinema. The Oscar nomination should help it gain some traction among upscale audiences and reap some nice, if modest box office returns.
Basing his adaptation on a one-man stage play by Evelyne de la Cheneliere (who has a cameo as a mother in the movie) writer/director Phillippe Falardeau explores the consequences of a teacher's tragic death and what happens when a Algerian immigrant offers his services to help heal the young students while also dealing quietly with his own personal tragedy. His initially stiff manner, along with questionable French-language skills and odd communicating methods offer up some wonderful opportunities for unexpected humor in a difficult situation. But as the film progresses so does Lazhar's connection to these kids, particularly Alice (Sophie Nélisse) and Simon (Emillien Néron) who are both emotionally shaken by the demise of their teacher (Simon, in fact, found him hanging in the school room). Somehow these kids and this substitute are there for each other at the right time in their lives. Falardeau shapes his film with subtlety and humanity.
The challenge of adapting what was a one-man show into a full bodied, full blooded motion picture is met head on by Falardeau, and his script is beautiful. He fleshed out characters barely discussed in the play and makes them living, breathing people we understand and care about. At the heart of the film is Fellag's brilliantly subtle portrayal; he clearly understands the nuances of Lazhar, where he came from, the painful exit from his homeland, the emergence of a new life and new world he must navigate without a safety net. Lest you think the film is going to be one big dirge, a movie about grief, it is defiantly not. It's about healing and moreover it is seen through the eyes of an immigrant, giving us a rare look into the way someone from another country suddenly must view the world and integrate himself into a situation that is as foreign to him as he is to those he meets.
The kids, especially Néron and Nélisse are irresistible and supporting players are well-cast. Human dramas like Monsieur Lazhar are a rare breed these days and this exceptional example is one to be cherished.
Distributor: Music Box Films
Starring: Mohammed Fellag, Sophie Nélisse, Emilien Néron, Danielle Proulx, Brigitte Poupart
Director/Screenwriter: Philippe Falardeau
Producers: Luc Dery, Kim McCraw
Genre: Drama; French-language, subtitled
Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic material, a disturbing image and brief language.
Running Time: 94 min.
Release Date: April 13 ltd.