Nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, it tackles the problem of troubled children and the need for a certain type of physical contact, as in “hugs.” Fear of pedophilia has banned any indication of even the slightest of “hugs” in most schools. “Lazhar” proposes that such extremism may throw an educational institution into deep depression.
The movie opens with a shocking scene. Two sixth-graders, Simon (Émilien Néron) and Alice (Sophie Nélisse), peer into the window in their classroom after recess and glimpse their beloved teacher, Martine, dangling dead from a pipe.
Under the leadership of by-the-book principal, Mrs. Vaillancourt (Danielle Prouix), the Montreal middle school launches into psychological lockdown. Still, inner tension is smoldering, particularly among the students.
To the rescue comes the mysterious Monsieur Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag), who arrives without a portfolio to fill in as substitute for the unfortunate Martine. He claims to have 19 years teaching experience in Algiers and his soft-spoken charisma wins over the principal and the traumatized students. His teaching technique has some rough spots (Balzac is a bit heady for sixth grade), but the fables of La Fontaine hit home. In fact, he scores with one of his own fables about a chrysalis, a clear metaphor for the current situation.
However, just when the pupils are crawling out of their cocoons, the teachersaint is revealed to not be a teacher at all. Haunted by a horrific past involving a terrorist attack on his wife and kids, Monsieur Lazhar is at one with his students in terms of trauma. And he understands the need for a hug now and then. Written and directed by Philippe Falardeau, based on Evelyne de la Chenelière’s one-person play, “Monsieur Lazhar” defines what makes a teacher great. And it has nothing to do with letters after the name. Go see it and find out why.