Monsieur Lazhar (2012): Canada’s Foreign Language Oscar Nominee

(Canada, Quebec)

Canadian Phillippe Falardeau continues to develop as a director, as manifest in his latest feature, “Monsieur Lazhar,” which premiered at the 2011 Toronto Film Fest (in the Special Presentations section).  It is now on a short list of nine foreign-language films selected by committees of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  (The final five nominees will be announced on January 24, alongside the candidates in all the other categories).

This French speaking film adds an honorable panel to the growing body of works about immigrants and exiles in foreign countries, as well as the subgenre of teachers and students.


Based on the one-character play by the writer Evelyne de la Cheneliere, “Monsieur Lazhar” centers on Bachir (splendidly played by Fellag), a middle-aged Algerian immigrant seeking political refuge in Quebec.


When a teacher at a Montreal elementary school suddenly commits suicide, Bachir grabs the opportunity to replace the instructor, an act which initially provides relief to the school’s overworked principal.


While opening up the play, “Monsieur Lazhar” still maintains the text’s intimate scope an in-depth look, focusing on the tender yet complex relationship of Bachir with two of his prime students.


One is a 10-year-old boy, traumatized by his discovery of the teacher’s body.  The other is a girl whose perception of the tragic event and resentment toward her friend throw her into a deep crisis that leads to some unexpected revelations.


Needless to say, the pupils are in a state of shock, and in its good moments (which are plentiful), the drama deals with the relevant issue of how to convey and to speak to children about the painful events of death and loss, especially of someone close to them.



But rest assured that “Monsieur Lazhar” is not a dry, dark, or pedagogic message film.  Au contraire: It offers a sharply etched character study with well defined relationships.


Unlike most American films about schools and teachers, “Monsieur Lazhar” is a work in which the professor shows consideration for his young, vulnerable pupils and is even open-minded and willing to learn from them.  Indeed, the relationship between Bachir and the kids is based on mutual respect and reciprocity.


I may be more partial to the film, because I have been a film professor for three decades, though never taught at elementary or high school. I particularly enjoyed the scenes that depict traditional versus modernist teaching methods, and how teachers may overcome their students’ initial rejection of classic authors, such as Balzac in this film.


Sensitively staged, the film benefits from Falardeau’s precise and delicate mise en scene, and it is well acted by all concerned.


This is the fourth feature, I think, by Falardeau, though I only have seen his previous one, “It’s Not Me, I Swear!” of 2008 (which also played at Toronto Fest).


The film’s producers seem to have good eyes (and ears) for intelligent material, as last year they have given us “Incendies,” which was nominated for the 2010 Best Foreign Language Oscar.



Running time: 94 Minutes.