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Monsieur Lazhar is a brilliantly under-stated character study of a simple, decent man. The brilliance lies not in performance (uniformly excellent), composition (neatly restrained) nor narrative (the forthright tale of an ordinary school teacher connecting with his ordinary students), but in the subtext and its deployment. Layers and layers of subtext each reveal something unique about Falardeau's characters and do so with precision timing that runs a range of emotional responses from knowing recognition to gut-wrenching drama; whether it's a comment on modern teaching methods, our response to refugees or the fear that has paralysed contemporary discipline and raising children. Take a handkerchief, you'll need it.

It's winter in Montreal when a young boy is the first to discover his school teacher has hanged herself in the classroom. Monsieur Lazhar, a kind Algerian with rather old-fashioned methods, takes over and quickly builds a relationship with the kids, encouraging each to come to terms with their loss with varying degrees of success: most button down their emotion, Alice directs her sadness into a crush on the new teacher while Simon grows increasingly hostile. But there's good reason for his wayward and uncontrollable anger. Similarly, Lazhar has good reason for his measured empathy, another story that is revealed as Falardeau peels away at the onion skin of his narrative.

Monsieur Lazhar is both heart-warming and heart-breaking, a story of loss and healing with Lazhar's own set of misfortunes the most tragic of all, one steeped in a mixed broth of courage and compassion. What stops it turning into a mawkish puddle of sentiment is the assurance of Falardeau's terrific and brutally honest storytelling mixed with the grace of Fellag's central performance. Perhaps more astonishing are the youngsters playing Alice and Simon who are simply breathtaking in their capacity to evoke the school's collective suffering.

Under an over-arching riddle - how can you touch someone if you can't touch them? - here is a film in which themes big and small are discussed in quiet, considered detail. That it seeks simple answers to difficult questions is rare enough, but that it is done with such warmth, humour and sincere, straight-forward drama is rarer still. A better film you won't see this year.

moviereview colin fraser film movie australia review critic flicks

Monsieur Lazhar (2011) on IMDb

Mohamed Fellag
Sophie Nélisse
Émilien Neron
Danielle Proulx

Philippe Falardeau

Philippe Falardeau

France (subtitles)

M / 94 minutes

September 6, 2012
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