Monsieur Lazhar opens with a shocking, incomprehensible tragedy: an elementary school teacher hangs herself in her classroom. The rest of the movie takes us on a journey through healing after loss steals our sense of reason and reality. It does this in a quiet, pensive, delicate way, as the characters place blame on themselves and one another, and try to forgive themselves, their friends and colleagues, and especially, the suicide victim herself.
After the suicide, the students need a new teacher, but the school principal has trouble finding someone to come under these circumstances. Enter: Bachir Lazhar (Fellag), an Algerian refugee who we come to discover has lost his entire family to political terrorism in his home country. In desperation, the principal hires him. Bachir’s methods are old-fashioned, both in the classroom and with his colleagues, but his heart is well-intentioned. The school has called in a psychologist to talk with the class and help them come to terms with the loss of their teacher. The administration and other teachers are made so uncomfortable about the woman’s suicide that they insist on keeping quiet about it, not speaking of her death, especially not with her students.
Monsieur Lazhar, however, has other ideas about how best to help the children heal. He sees them coping in their own, immature ways with their senses of blame and guilt, their horror at having discovered the hanging body, their desire to move on and their guilt around that. One student explains that they, the children, aren’t the ones who are upset: it’s the adults who are so distressed by the suicide. Of course, this isn’t exactly true, and perhaps because Bachir also grieving the loss of his family, he is more comfortable than the other teachers and principal with talking about death and grief. He sees the value in expressions of grief, and gives the children space to do that. The parallel stories of the students’ grief and Bachir’s grief intertwine beautifully.
Monsieur Lazhar is a beautifully acted movie, full of tender and sometimes aching performances, primarily from the children. One boy is ostracized after the teacher’s suicide, because he had complained to the principal about her not long before she died, for inappropriate student-teacher contact. In one heartbreaking scene, the boy insists that he was right to complain because he hated it when she had hugged him. He was the first to discover her body, and he imagines that the teacher was punishing him because she knew he would be the first one in the classroom that morning. He both blames himself, and does not want his classmates to blame him.
In all, Monsieur Lazhar is a lovely little study of grief and loss that both breaks and warms your heart, and leaves you with a vague sense of hope: that it is possible to come out of the confusion of tragedy and back into the light of day once more. A
Films I love: Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Fargo, Being John Malkovich, Melancholia, Volver, Juno