The French-Canadian film "Monsieur Lazhar" has one of the most powerful openings I've ever seen in a movie. Ten-year-old Simon (the marvelous little Émilien Néron) walks into his elementary school to deliver milk during recess and, from the doorway, sees his teacher hanging from a rope in the empty classroom. He is soon joined by his friend Alice (Sophie Nélisse), but very soon the news is out and the rest of the children are spared the scene.
Why did their favorite teacher kill herself? How will these children handle their grief? Director Philippe Falardeau, adapting a one-act stage monologue by Évelyne de la Chenelière, provides no easy answers to anything. It is not only the children who must work through this situation. Into their midst comes a substitute teacher, Monsieur Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag), who himself is throttled with anguish – although, for a long time, the source of his pain is held from us.
Lazhar reads about the school tragedy and offers himself to the school as a substitute to the children. With no clear candidates in the offing, the school principal (Danielle Proulx) takes a chance on this recent Algerian immigrant who claims an extensive teaching résumé in his homeland. He is instructed by the principal to just teach and not to interfere with the psychologists who have been brought in to counsel the kids. He inevitably provides them with emotional support anyway, especially the newly troubled Simon, who, taunted by his schoolmates, mistakenly believes he is responsible for his teacher's death.
Despite his vast reserves of empathy, Lazhar, who appears to be the school's only male teacher, is no pushover as an educator. This rankles not only the children but also some of the faculty who are suspicious of his unorthodox methods. (He rearranges the circular class seating into straight rows and lectures the children on Balzac.) The parents are not altogether fond of him, either, and one suspects his immigrant status doesn't help his cause.
One of the film's defects is that these parents, despite their centrality to the story, barely figure in the action, and when they do, they come across as somewhat dense and uncaring. Another problem is that Lazhar, although he's a beautiful conception for a character and is sensitively played by Fellag, never quite springs to full-grown life. This is probably because Falardeau is too coy in the way he gradually allows Lazhar's sorrowful back story to emerge. A direct approach would have been more powerful and more honest.
But there are wonderful sequences strewn throughout, like the moment when Lazhar, at a school dance, begins to slowly sway to the music as if in a trance, and the scene near the end when Simon's pent-up guilt and rage and sadness frighteningly erupt. "Monsieur Lazhar" was nominated last year for the Oscar for best foreign film in a fast crowd that also included "In Darkness" and the winner, "A Separation." It is not out of place in their company. Grade: B+ (Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, a disturbing image, and brief language.)