On the face of it, “Monsieur Lazhar” appears to be an extra-mild entry in the “Goodbye, Mr. Chips”-“To Sir With Love” genre, but its mind is on larger matters and its heart is full of sorrow and rage. Canada’s entry in the 2011 foreign language Oscar race, the film was bested in the category by Iran’s “A Separation,” and that’s as it should have been. It does no disservice to “Lazhar,” just now appearing in the Boston area, to say it’s not an epic of frustrated humanism on the order of Asghar Farhadi’s film. Writer-director Philippe Falardeau is working on a more intimate scale, and he achieves everything he sets out to do.
The setting is a Montreal middle school, one whose innocence is dispelled by horror in the very first scene. A young boy named Simon (Émilien Néron) returns to his classroom after recess but finds the door locked. Peering through the rectangular glass, he sees the body of his teacher (Héléna Laliberté) hanging from a steam pipe.
Another director might zoom in for full impact; Falardeau pulls back and lets his camera wander the halls in shock, capturing the teachers shooing the students back into the courtyard, noticing the one tough-minded girl, Alice (Sophie Nélisse), who sneaks a peek for herself. “Monsieur Lazhar” is about the aftermath of this event — about the untruths that adults and institutions tell children in a deluded effort to protect them, and about the worried clarity with which children see things for themselves.
The school’s harried principal, Mme. Vaillaincourt (Danielle Proulx), paints the walls and sends the kids back in, despairing of finding a substitute. Rather miraculously, one appears unbidden: a gentle, scholarly Algerian immigrant named Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag) who is initially as naïve about his students as they are about him. He has them copying passages from Balzac; no go. He rearranges their desks from a circle into traditional rows; the other teachers giggle at his political incorrectness. When he gives one misbehaving student an absent-minded smack on the back of the head, he’s brusquely informed that no touching is allowed, in anger or in affection.
There’s a quiet metaphor here: How do you teach children without touching them — their minds, their souls, their sensitivities? As the school year rolls on (and as the season, with discreet obviousness, turns from winter to spring), Monsieur Lazhar struggles with his students’ need to mourn their former teacher and to give voice to their careening emotions. But there’s a grief counselor for that — Lazhar has to leave the room whenever she takes over — and the No Touching rule extends to the subject of suicide.
What could be didactic is rendered life-size and indelible, even with the cards that Falardeau has carefully stacked. Lazhar has his own secrets to mourn and his own brush with bureaucracy to contend with (he’s applying for political asylum), and the loss of individuality in the state’s eyes, whether that individual be an immigrant or a child, is very much the subject. The director’s screenplay — adapted, surprisingly, from a one-man play by Évelyne de la Chenelière — is so elegantly written that each character is granted his or her own specificity, from the kind but stressed-out principal to the love interest teaching the class next door (Brigitte Poupart), whose multicultural crunchiness is revealed as well-meaning and shallow.
The children, especially, seem real enough: watchful and narrow-minded, capable of casual cruelty and greater generosity. Above all, they want to be spoken to honestly, which only Lazhar is foolish enough to do. Another surprise: Fellag is better known as a stand-up comedian whose politically sharp jibes got him chased from Algeria to France in the late 1990s. There’s nothing of a comic’s ego to his performance, though — just a lightness that seems recalled from happier times and a courtliness that doubles as camouflage. In a throwaway line, we learn that Lazhar owned a restaurant in his home country, but we never see him cook. Like his students, he’s living a paused life.
I’ve seen “Monsieur Lazhar” twice, and it seemed even more lucid the second time around. Parts of it stick with me still: the expressions on the characters’ faces as they measure the distance between what society gives them and what they will have to provide for themselves. The film’s gestures are small but full of life. A shot of Lazhar standing at his classroom window at night, letting the music of the school dance below lead him into a private desert dance solo, is the sort of thing that gets a laugh when you see it in the movie’s trailer but hushes you with empathy when encountered in its proper turn. The film says it’s the unseen acts of defiance that make us who we are and that allow us, in turn, to touch others in ways that truly make a difference.