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Monsieur Lazhar: movie review

A traumatized young class finds a tender new teacher, but not everyone likes Monsieur Lazhar.

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Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag), an Algerian immigrant, offers his services as a substitute teacher to a class mourning its teacher.

Courtesy of Music Box Films

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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.

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