Opening in the cold environs of a snowy Quebec schoolyard, Philippe Falardeau’s Monsieur Lazhar is a film about healing, the gradual thaw that develops in the wake of a tragedy. It’s a process that here plays out on two fronts, which converge serendipitously on an otherwise peaceful primary school: On one side is a class of fourth graders, struggling with the suicide of their beloved teacher, who hanged herself in her empty classroom, and on the other is the titular Lazhar, an Algerian refugee contending with his own painful scars.
Like Lauren Cantat’s recent The Class, the film utilizes a classroom as a closed laboratory for conflict, discussion and resolution, not always necessarily in that order. It’s less overtly political than The Class, and less structurally ambitious, preferring to view its roster of problems though a gently inspirational lens. In some ways, this traces back to a simple schematic difference: Cantent’s movie was about causes, exploring the rift between the teacher and the taught; Falardeau’s is about results, how feelings of guilt and grief play out in social settings.
Monsieur Lazhar shares another quality with The Class, in that it’s tantalizingly close to being a great movie, but doesn’t push hard enough to achieve that status. In this case, the problem is that the biggest strength is also the clearest liability. Algerian actor Fellag does a fantastic job rendering the limits of this closed-off man, who’s seeking refugee status after the politically directed murder of his wife and daughter, but the character remains too mysteriously vague. There are traces of the gentleness and hurt portrayed by Kanji Watanabe in the similarly poignant Ikiru. But a masterpiece like Kurosawa’s allowed us inside its protagonist, revealing complications, layers, and flaws. Lazhar remains fundamentally unknowable, nearly Christ-like in his aching, crystalline grief, a quality that seems less like a mistake than a cheat for maximizing the character’s emotional power.
Aside from this, Monsieur Lazhar remains sentimentally circumspect and generally heart-wrenching, ending on such a quietly tragic note that it’s tempting to cut it some more slack. There’s also a nice sense of parity between both halves of this emotional equation, in that neither side can adequately express its pain. In Lazhar’s case, this is for practical purposes; the last thing these shell-shocked children need is to be burdened with more tales of suffering. The children, as witnessed by some acutely depicted arguments, are ready to talk, but they’re burdened by still-forming communication skills and the school’s moratorium on discussing the subject; it encourages them to speak up, but only in the presence of the appointed psychologist.
In this way, the focus on silence in the face of trauma poisons both the character’s lives and the film itself. There’s great potential for the kind of issues that are taken on, but nothing is resolved, and the biggest questions, of guilt and shame, the gulf of understanding between the first world and the third, remain unengaged. Monsieur Lazhar may hit the right notes emotionally, but it’s answers remain otherwise unsatisfying.