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In 'Monsieur Lazhar,' Grief Lingers In The Classroom

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Teacher movies tend to be more alike than unalike, but Monsieur Lazhar makes the familiar unusually strange. The note on which it opens is shocking, tragic: A Montreal middle school student, Simon, enters his classroom ahead of the other kids and finds his teacher hanging from a pipe, dead by her own hand.

As the rest of the kids are hastily turned back, one girl, Alice, peeks in and sees the body. A week later, when the fuss has died down, a middle-aged Algerian immigrant shows up in the principal's office and talks his way into the vacant teaching job, which no one wants. This is Monsieur Lazhar.

Kids bereft, caregiver floating in from nowhere ... it could be a ghoulish Mary Poppins. The difference is that Bachir Lazhar doesn't seem to have a clue what he's doing. The curriculum confuses him. Administrators and parents reprimand him for trying to talk about the dead teacher, with the kids and even with them, the grown-ups.

At one point, he lightly smacks a student on the back of the head after the boy mouths off, which leads the principal to tell him that teachers are not allowed to touch students — not to smack them, not even to pat or hug or shake hands. The restriction has more symbolic than literal weight. But it reinforces Lazhar's sense that he's a million miles away from these kids.

I've read complaints that Monsieur Lazhar is too polished and restrained, which I think is bunk. Writer-director Philippe Falardeau does keep most of the emotional turmoil under the surface: The film is crisp and evenly paced, its colors bright and as sharp as the Quebec winter cold, with a gently beautiful score by Canadian singer-songwriter Martin Leon that never jars the mood.

But that unruffled surface is true to the characters' forced repression. No one is allowed to express fully his or her grief. The mood is tense, pregnant with fear, increasingly, almost unbearably sad.

Monsieur Lazhar is played by an Algerian actor named Mohamed Fellag, who goes by his last name and is largely known in France for playing comic parts. I have no idea what he's like in comedy, but now I want to see him in everything. He's magnetic, his Lazhar self-contained but not, you can see, by choice.

Lazhar wants his students to share their feelings about their late teacher, but he won't disclose his own past — not even to another teacher who likes him and whom he briefly dates. He channels his feelings into reaching these students. At first, the two kids who saw their teacher's body are drawn together — but then they pull back from each other for reasons we won't understand until late in the film. Simon is ravaged; Alice wants to talk, but no one will listen — except, of course, Monsieur Lazhar.

The more we learn about Bachir Lazhar, his tragic past in Algeria and his uncertain future in Quebec, the more we understand what not even he can fully articulate. The world he knows is full of senseless death, but he has a fierce conviction that the classroom is where all that is supposed to go away, where teachers must never let their own emotions interfere with the care and intellectual feeding of young lives. He couldn't hear about a teacher killing herself in the classroom without wanting to rush in and work some kind of magic.

Within the context of the film, that might be a doomed enterprise. But he's one of the best teacher role models I've ever seen. Monsieur Lazhar, the character and the film, are heart-rending. (Recommended)

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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