In this year's race for best foreign-language film, a few of the likely contenders -- A Separation from Iran, In Darkness from Poland, Footnote from Israel -- have been making the rounds on the festival circuit all year. Now, a lesser-known title from Canada, Philippe Falardeau's Monsieur Lazhar, seems likely to join the list of front-runners. This nearly perfect gem begins as a tiny slice of life, but sneaks up on you and packs a wallop by the time it reaches its conclusion. The film already has opened to good business in Canada, and word-of-mouth might propel it in the U.S. as well when Music Box releases the film this spring.
Lazhar opens with a quietly shocking image. A young boy is bringing a supply of milk to his elementary school classroom when he is startled by what he sees in the doorway: His beloved teacher has hanged herself in the empty classroom. The repercussions of this act spread and deepen throughout the rest of the film. School authorities bring in a psychologist to help the children deal with this trauma, and things seem to be headed in the right direction when a new teacher from Algeria, Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag), offers to take over the class.
It turns out that Bachir has survived a trauma of his own in his native Algeria, and as secrets gradually are revealed during the course of the next 90 minutes, the new teacher and his charges help each other to heal.
Bachir's main contribution to the classroom is in encouraging the young students to confront the teacher's death, which the school administrators would prefer to slip under the rug.
And though the pacing of the first half of the movie is overly deliberate, it's because Falardeau eschews showy theatrics so that the emotions the story generates are earned.
This has been a season with a number of child actors featured prominently in films such as Hugo, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and We Bought a Zoo. Good as some of those child actors are, none surpasses the performances that Falardeau has drawn from Sophie Nelisse and Emilien Neron as the students who were closest to the dead teacher.
They both seem impassive at first, but as the pain they feel bubbles to the surface, the film achieves scalding power. The scene in which young Neron finally breaks down as he reveals the irrational guilt he harbors over his teacher's suicide is as devastating a piece of acting as anything seen this year.
Although the film hews closely to the specific details of this tale, it implicitly raises a host of larger issues: the tremendous responsibility that teachers bear toward their students, the blindness of parents who have no idea of what transpires away from home, the questionable new codes of conduct that forbid any physical contact between teachers and pupils, and finally the disruptions of a world where political upheavals can insinuate themselves into everyday life even a continent away. These are ambitious themes for a 90-minute movie -- the stubborness of grief is not the usual point of films in the inspiring-teacher genre -- but Falardeau's style and the eloquence of the performances put the bloated epics of this holiday season to shame.
Cast: Mohamed Fellag, Emilien Neron, Danielle Proulx, Sophie Nelisse
Director-screenwriter: Philippe Falardeau
Producers: Luc Dery, Kim McCraw
No rating, 94 minutes