In the hands of a less talented and ambitious writer Monsieur Lazhar would have ended up looking strikingly like a more serene version of School of Rock. Both films centre on a teacher who is not really a teacher and what he can do to improve the lives of the children in his class. Aside from a worrying lack of background checks on the part of both schools that is where the similarities end. The raucously good fun School of Rock shows the awakening of a rebellious and imaginative spirit created by a rock musician posing as a teacher at a rather stuffy private school in the US. Monsieur Lazhar tells the story of a class in Montreal whose teacher committed suicide in the very classroom she used to teach her students. Algerian immigrant Bachir Lazhar (Fellag) is the only option the school headmistress can find willing to take over the stricken class. His past and relationship with the students become a tale of compassion and acceptance that emulates Frank Capra at his best.
Fleeing Algerian terrorism Bachir Lazhar decides to pose as a teacher to see if his experience can help these children adjust after the death of their teacher. His methods occasionally seem outdated probably due to his limited experience in the field, he is not necessarily what the children want but he is what they need. Someone who understands, who can empathise. His lack of knowledge of the rules of teaching in this case is an advantage, instead of hiding from the children and passing their questions onto the psychologists, he encourages them to speak, he may not know the curriculum but he knows the suffering of loss.
Lazhar connects especially well with young Alice (Sophie Nélisse), a bright young student who is dealing with the loss of her teacher with an astonishing maturity, albeit independently. He touches her life in a way that no teacher could have. His affable sensibility along with his desire to help the children goes a long way with troubled student Simon (Émilien Néron). Simon is finding the death of his teacher unbearable, acting out in violent and aggressive ways, other teachers at the school talk of a transfer but that is furthest from the mind of Lazhar. Subtly but effectively, Lazhar works on the children just as the affection is subtly coaxed from the audience.
Mohamed Fellag known simply as Fellag for this film is an inspired choice to play the pivotal character Lazhar and Philippe Falardeau knows exactly what to do with his magnetic star. An unshakeable optimism is exuded in his presence; on his face is a kind smile and gentle accepting eyes, yet there is a dark shadowy aspect to his demeanour when his past is mentioned. His face often centres in the frame but is blurred or blocked when he remembers his painful history. Fellag is a mesmerising performer and coupled with amazing performances from Nélisse and Néron completing the human drama.
The disillusioned young students and the shaken immigrant teacher are equally important to each other. The film is a remarkabletestament to the kindness of strangers and how the simplest of gestures can change lives. Monsieur Lazhar is the kind of film that makes the cinema worthwhile, romantic but realistic; it is a beautiful near flawless wonder.