Film review by John Campbell
How often do we find that it is the simple story that rewards us most? That it is the simple story that delves deepest into the profound and complex business of being human?
Layered, calm and unhurried (it achieves in 94 minutes what many others can’t in two-and-a-half overblown hours), this French-Canadian feature, based on a play by Evelyne de la Cheneliere, is a plain-speaking expression of hope and love.
Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag), an Algerian refugee, is hired at a Montreal school to replace a young teacher who hanged herself in the classroom (the process of his getting the job is not entirely believable, but that’s an insignificant quibble). His immediate task is to deal with the children’s grief and sense of loss, then to proceed with the day-to-day demands of the curriculum.
Bachir’s methods are anachronistic in the intensely regulated, politically correct environment of western education – he is chastised for giving one kid a deserved clip over the ear for his poor behaviour, while his dictation of Balzac is a throwback to an abandoned, discredited intellectual rigour. But it is his unorthodoxy and openness that endear him to the children.
Soon enough it becomes clear that there are suppressed emotional wounds that must be healed – within the teacher as well as his pupils. As a man needing to have his own broken heart repaired through the act of attending to the hurt of others, Fellag’s elegant performance sets a tone of gentleness and kindness through civility, which is nowadays an antiquated concept.
The gorgeous Sophie Nélisse as Alice, Bachir’s favourite, and Émilien Néron as the troubled Simon are both excellent (Simon’s cathartic moment is genuinely moving) in a room full of fine junior actors.
Allowing the characters to expose their humanity without distraction, and perhaps influenced by the minimalism of the stage from which his material has been adapted, writer/director Philippe Falardeau’s approach is uncomplicated and direct but never abrasive. A beautiful movie – catch it while you can.