Monsieur Lazhar (PG-13) (94 min.) — A normal morning at a Montreal grade school turns shocking when a beloved teacher is discovered hanged in her classroom. Coping with the children's grief will be difficult for her replacement, an Algerian immigrant with heartache of his own.
The setup sounds depressing, yet Philippe Falardeau's movie — an Oscar nominee for best foreign language film — is uplifting in a subdued fashion that would escape most American filmmakers. There are no crescendos of emotional outpouring, or left-field confessions of guilt. There is a genuine sense of people filtering their pain through daily experiences, acting normal when the situation isn't. The more we learn about their pasts, the more we empathize with their facades.
Bachir Lazhar is played with melancholy whimsy by Algerian comedian Mohamed Fellag in a performance greatly depending upon stillness. As we gradually learn, Lazhar shouldn't draw attention to himself, for reasons stemming from his departure from his homeland. He isn't who he claims to be, but the deception isn't malicious. Lazhar builds true affection for his students, who can't stop mourning their dead teacher, in the innocent way children do.
The brightest pupil is Alice (Sophie Nélisse), who saw the corpse hanging and knows something that may have caused the inexplicable to occur. Alice is the first to realize that Lazhar's classroom tactics aren't the product of a stern teacher but one who cares, and that's something she needs with an absentee single parent. Another student, Simon (Émilien Néron), has a connection to the deceased, setting everything in motion.
Falardeau guides this delicate drama with assured patience, dropping tantalizing hints about Lazhar's true story (which could inspire its own movie), and secrets of the woman he replaces. Monsieur Lazhar becomes a deeply affecting film not for pathos but for the way sadness is conveyed so subtly. It's a small triumph of restrained compassion, coaxing throat lumps rather than jerking tears. Shown with English subtitles. A (Tampa Theatre)
Steve Persall, Times movie critic