It’s not homework or pop quizzes that trouble a group of Montreal schoolkids; it’s that their beloved teacher has hung herself from the classroom ceiling. Well-meaning administrators call in a child psychologist, but the trauma endures, particularly for the volatile student Simon (Émilien Néron), who thinks he’s to blame. Enter Monsieur Lazhar (MohamedFellag), a stately Algerian émigré who appears out of nowhere like an angel (or a vulture) to commandeer the class. His methods may be musty—he head-slaps a child and quotes Zola—but Lazhar encourages the students to talk freely about their emotions. Yet the mysterious educator is less than forthcoming about his own tragedy—or whether he’s even qualified to teach.
A nominee for this year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, Philippe Falardeau’s drama stakes out an award-season-appropriate middle ground between regional specificity and genre familiarity. The diasporic subtext and evolving French dialect may be Quebecois concerns, but the movie’s racial tensions, clashes of old versus new teaching methods, and classroom breakthroughs are clearly hand-me-downs from familiar heroic-teacher classics like Stand and Deliver. Thankfully, cinematographer Ronald Plante makes long-take magic out of banal locales, while the understated Fellag does for the film what his Lazhar does for the pupils: He’s soothing and entrancingly enigmatic enough to keep us fixed to our seats
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