French Canadian director Phillippe Falardeau's wintry (literally) drama, which was nominated for a best foreign-language Oscar earlier this year, is an admirably restrained movie that sucker-punches you at the end with a strong emotional wallop.
"Monsieur Lazhar" opens in a snow-covered Montreal schoolyard. Simon (Emilien Neron), a smart aleck with a shaggy haircut, enters his school ahead of his classmates and discovers his teacher dangling from a heating duct, an apparent suicide. In the chaos that follows, Simon's friend Alice (Sophie Nelisse) also manages to sneak a peek. Their shared trauma brings the two together and then, for reasons we learn later, tears them apart. Alice talks out the suicide with startling precociousness, much to the consternation of the adults around her, while Simon folds in on himself, eaten up by guilt.
Enter Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Said Fellag), a dignified Algerian who begs the school's harried principal to let him teach the grieving class. She gives him a chance, impressed by his sincerity and determination. It also helped that all of other substitute teachers refused the gig.
In a Hollywood version of this movie, the plot would unfold along the lines of "Mary Poppins" meets "Stand and Deliver," perhaps starring an aging comedian looking for an Oscar nomination. Thankfully, "Monsieur Lazhar" isn't that movie. Lazhar proves, initially, to be a stiff, awkward teacher, confused by the touchy-feeliness of North American middle-class pedagogy. At one point, he has his charges copy passages of Moliere and Victor Hugo, which unsurprisingly goes over poorly. At another, he cuffs Simon on the back of the head for being difficult, which prompts the principal to gently tell him that touching a student in any way -- from a slap to a hug -- is strictly verboten.
[Related: Indie Roundup: 'A Kid with a Bike']
Claire (Brigitte Poupart), a free-spirited colleague, is attracted to the exotic newcomer. Over a glass of red wine, she tries to wheedle Lazhar's story out of him, saying that "exile is just another journey." The muddled-headed platitude makes his mild, self-contained facade slip for just a moment, revealing an ocean of pain and anger. Lazhar, we learn, is a political refugee still reeling from the horrific murder of his wife and child at the hands of religious zealots in his home country.
What helps Lazhar get through the day is his stubborn, barely articulated conviction that the classroom is a sanctuary of order in a world filled with senseless horrors. And it is that belief that helps his charges warm to him and eventually assuage some of their own grief.