Monsieur Lazhar (directed by Philippe Falardeau) begins with a scene in a school playground in Montreal, Canada, where one of the students assigned for the milk duty discovers his teacher hanging from the ceiling. The viewers are subtly hinted that the school is not one of the highly sought-after schools as the headmistress, Madame Vaillancourt (Danielle Proulx) finds it hard to find a substitute teacher. In this desperate time, in walks Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Saïd Felag), a refined man who claims to be a teacher in his native Algeria and is looking for a job. His method seems antiquated but he manages to restore a sense of normalcy in the class.
We then discover that Bachir fled Algeria after he and his family were persecuted by the extremists – her wife’s book angers the hardliners and on the night where they were due to flee the next morning, their apartment complex was burnt, perishing his wife and children. Carrying this grief and some personal secret, Bachir applies to be a refugee in Canada.
I deliberately avoided any websites detailing the synopsis or reviews of Monsieur Lazhar – all I know is that it’s a movie about a school teacher. It was a good move, as I watched the movie and followed the story with an open heart and an open mind. In a movie about death and grief, we also learn more about education and love – and the dilemma that school teachers are facing worldwide. Should they help the parents in raising the children, or should they just focus on the education? Should they be close to the children when physical contacts are now totally frowned upon? There is a male teacher in the movie who is introduced almost like a typical boofhead phys-ed teacher who goes around the schoolyard with his whistle glued in his mouth. The movie reveals that he feels insecure in scolding or even touching the children, so he has to resort to whistling to guide the children, like some kind of apathetic shepherd.
This movie is truly a gem – if you want to discover or re-discover about the value of family, cultures, education and love. It also subtly informs the viewers about the plight of refugees and the emotional turmoil. In one of the memorable scene where a teacher boasts that she is also a “visitor” in Canada as she shares about her passion for the places and countries in Africa, Bachir briefly opens up and says that it’s not the same with him coming to Canada – being uprooted from his culture and settling in an alien country. Not a joyride at all.
Monsieur Lazhar was Canada’s official entry for the 84th Academy Award and was even shortlisted for the top five nominees.