Quebec Bakalva…..lovely, seems familiar though.


Directed by: Philippe Falardeau

Written by: Philippe Falardeau, Evelyne de la Chenelière (play)

Featuring: Mohamed Fellag, Sophie Nélisse, Émilien Néron, Marie-Ève Beauregard,
Louis-David Leblanc, Brigitte Poupart, Danielle Proulx

In a Montreal elementary school, a popular teacher commits suicide in the classroom. Bachir Lazhar arrives at the school to offer his services as a replacement teacher. Monsieur Lazhar has the difficult task of taking the traumatised pupils through the long healing process all the way facing the possibility of being deported from Canada if his asylum-seeking request is rejected. Monsieur Lazhar is humble, gentle and sensitive and his methods to get the children to open up seem to be working but Lazhar has secrets of his own, secrets that explain why he is at the school and why every may change for him and his class.

Placed in the wrong hands Monsieur Lazhar could easily have turned out to be a terrific treacly confection of heartstring-tugging manipulation. Considering what is on display, the themes, it is to the credit of the director, and screenplay writer Philippe Faraldeau it is not.

The tragic event that starts the story, whilst a bit unlikely, is not sugar-coated and from that, for me at least, fairly shocking opening all things grow. We are into adult themes here, that come crashing into the world of children, it is all about love, loss and the well-walked path ‘a stranger in a strange land’ but for a lovely change you are not hit about the head with a baseball bat with these themes.

Without laying out the plot, and what happens and how the story concludes it is difficult to discuss what you see on the screen. It is best to say that we are treated to restrained naturalistic performances where possible and some of the least annoying child actors I have seen for quite some time. In particular, Sophie Nélisse was at the time clearly Canada’s child-Drew Barrymore. The adult actors also give great accounts in particular Mohamed Fellag who brings nuance and quiet air of dignity and sadness to Lazhar.

There is a real undercurrent of trauma throughout the story that runs through the lives of everyone adult and child alike but the real trick, the real heft of this well-crafted and acted story is that for such a huge emotional hit in people’s lives there is no pay-off, no closure, you work your way around the roadblock, you try your best to make sense of it – sometimes it does not make sense. To my way of thinking this is a very adult way to show the audience a tough and emotive topic.

Plenty of comment throughout the story on the process of education in Canada, the restrictions of teaching methods, for good or bad, and how it can change a dynamic between teachers, pupils, and parents to such an extent where Lazhar’s simple observations on a child to her parents is immediately rebuked and he told to ‘teach not bring up’ but to the credit of the film it sides with no one, you make your own decisions. This is the film’s strength it really does not try to push any agenda, Lazhar is a nice man, who is hiding more than one secret, not because he is an asylum-seeking Algerian but because he is a nice man. The headteacher tells him how things must be done not because she is the ‘baddie’ (far from it) but because it is her job and that is how it must be done.

For me, this type of attitude to the story with issues that can get people very emotive, as we know this is now a code-word for sweary and dementedly angry these days, was refreshing.

Based on a play by Evelyne de la Chenelière, who plays pupil Alice’s airline pilot mother, Monsieur Lazhar is a simple tale, told subtly, on a topic that could have been mangled through the Call the Midwife sugar press. It was not.

Recommended unless you really hate asylum seekers and children.

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