'Monsieur Lazhar': Trauma, tenderness in a Canadian school ✭✭✭

'Monsieur Lazhar'

'Monsieur Lazhar' (April 25, 2012)

We want our stories about schoolteachers to inspire us, just as we crave inspiring teachers.

In "Monsieur Lazhar," a foreign-language Oscar nominee from last year, an Algerian immigrant living in Montreal fills a post as a substitute middle school instructor. The circumstances of his hiring have left unseen clouds of difficulty in his classroom: The teacher Lazhar replaces committed suicide, hanging herself in the room. Two of the film's key younger characters discovered the body.

Lazhar struggles with his own demons relating to his life back in Algeria, and as director Philippe Falardeau's story proceeds, an American viewer (many love this film; I like it) can only marvel at the depiction of a French-Canadian public school and the quality of its classroom discourse.

Lazhar keeps to himself, mostly, but as he is pulled out of his protective shell by colleagues and students, the film blossoms on schedule into a portrait of mutual grief recovery.

It's all a bit neat. But whatever the film's limitations, it's certainly engaging to watch. As is Mohamed Fellag, as Lazhar. It's a bit of an anomaly, this performance: Lazhar is meant to be a contained and guarded individual, shouldering serious burdens, yet Fellag's natural, showy charisma as an actor lights up every scene (and he's in most of them).

Does it feel entirely authentic and three-dimensional? Not really. Is it entertaining? Yes.

Nonetheless I can't recommend "Monsieur Lazhar" without also saying you really need to see Laurent Cantet's marvelous French film "The Class." There, a universe of difficult and rewarding relationships between students and a teacher becomes the stuff of unassuming art.

mjphillips@tribune.com

'Monsieur Lazhar' -- 3 stars

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic material, a disturbing image and brief language)

Running time: 1:34; in French with English subtitles

Opens: Friday

CHICAGO

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