The moment in a school year when the teacher writes her name on the blackboard is one of our first lessons in the cycle of life. Summer is over, and the curtain rises on a new story with a fresh cast of characters. If we're lucky, it's a romantic comedy.
But for the 'tweens in a Montreal schoolroom, it's a drama, and the sequence is out of order. The windows are frosted, and a different story ended with the suicide of their teacher before they are introduced to the emergency substitute.
Monsieur Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag) is a middle-age Algerian immigrant who has volunteered his services to the school principal. Lazhar has the credentials of an experienced teacher, but he's unfamiliar with the local customs, from the informal arrangement of the desks to the politically correct rules about interaction with the students.
The kindly, conscientious teacher senses from the troubled faces that there are lingering issues about his predecessor's death. After he tries to engage the children in a discussion about their grief, the principal and parents scold him.
An unruly boy named Simon (Emilien Neron) seems especially edgy about the topic of the teacher's death. His former friend Alice (Sophie Nelisse) implies that Simon bears some guilt for it.
Lazhar has secrets of his own, which led him to seek political asylum in Canada, but as with Simon's story, the clues are rationed. Until a devastatingly effective finale, "Monsieur Lazhar" is an exercise in delicacy, carried by Fallag's gentle performance and a fine cast of kid actors.
Young Nelisse was named Canada's best supporting actress last year as Alice, and the film was an Academy Award nominee for best foreign language film.
Although it raises timeless questions about life and loss, and timely ones about mentorship and multiculturalism, "Monsieur Lazhar" would rather teach than preach.
Three and a half stars out of four • Rating PG-13 • Run time 1:52 • Content Mature themes • Language French with English subtitles • Where Plaza Frontenac