The title character of Philippe Falardeau’s new film, Monsieur Lazhar, is an Algerian refugee who shows up at a school in Quebec and takes a difficult job as a teacher filling in for a young woman who hung herself in the classroom. We know little about the man, but there is enough to suspect that what he tells school administrators – that he was a long-time teacher in his native country – isn’t true. Maybe his wife was. Maybe he was mixed up in bad things. His family is dead; he is alone, and the encounter with the children is a collision of complimentary traumas.
Trauma, or dealing with trauma, offers one thematic undercurrent to Monsieur Lazhar, another supplied by questions about the nature of education. Lazhar rearranges the desk to formal rows after his arrival, and he challenges the children beyond what administrators believe they are capable of (memorizing Balzac, for example). There is even an instance when Lazhar lightly slaps a child on the back of the head for acting up. It’s brushed off as a cultural miss-translation. After all, despite the ordeal of their teacher’s suicide, Lazhar seems to have his kids back on track.
Falardeau’s film is a quiet, muted drama, and despite its political and social undertones, what is most captivating is the great amount of respect Falardeau shows his characters and audience. So much of the meaning of his film is bound up on the filmmaker’s intent on allowing an inherent dignity to resonate throughout his movie’s world. Monsieur Lazhar is a soft, human movie caught up in its own semi-tragic narrative trajectory. There is a lingering sense throughout that Lazhar’s story will not end well, but before it unravels, we are forced to consider what effect shifting attitudes towards and education and eroding relationships between generations are having on society. When one of the student’s parents reprimands Lazhar by saying, “we want you to teach him, not raise him,” the real question of the movie is forced to the surface. Because what is raising without teaching; teaching without an effect on how one is raised?