In the opening scene of this quietly devastating French-Canadian drama, an 11-year-old boy on milk-monitor duty peers through a classroom door and sees his teacher has hanged herself from a pipe. As he tears off blindly, we hear the clatter of his classmates piling into the building after lunch. Will the boy make it back in time with help? Or will they see what he’s seen? It’s tremendously gripping. Afterwards the kids seem okay, but like banged knees, the bruises take a while to show.
A week or so later, amid the fallout, Monsieur Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag) shows up at the stressed headteacher’s office and is appointed as the class’s substitute teacher. He’s Algerian and claims to have 20 years’ teaching experience. That’s not quite true: he was a civil servant in Algeria before fleeing persecution. None of which prevents Lazhar, a man of huge dignity and compassion, from being a fantastic teacher – after some teething problems. The kids call him a ‘dinosaur’ for making them take Balzac dictation. ‘Personal adjectives don’t exist any more,’ shrills one kid. But he understands more than anyone the trauma they’re going through.
‘Monsieur Lazhar’ was nominated for Best Foreign Film at this year’s Oscars, and Philippe Falardeau, who adapted the story from a one-man play, does a wonderful job with his child actors. The classroom scenes transported me right back to primary school, capturing perfectly the texture of school life: the intimacy of kids who have known each other practically all their lives.You could almost describe ‘Monsieur Lazhar’ as a morality tale, but it’s more thought-provoking than debate-provoking. Its strength is the realness of the emotions and authenticity of the detail, although there is a gentle insistence here that integration is a two-way street.