Movies about teachers are supposed to be inspiring. And uplifting. And to teach us something. So it's understandable if the shorthand on the French Canadian "Monsieur Lazhar" makes it sound as crusty as a whole-grain baguette (émigré teacher takes over troubled class, makes life better). In fact, director Philippe Falardeau's alternately charming and troubling drama is far too complex for easy reactions, or conclusions, and though it's a bit too early to say that it's an unforgettable movie, one suspects it is. It's also about so many things it nearly defies explanation.
But here goes: After a teacher hangs herself in a Montreal middle school -- the reasons are vague, but insidious -- the previously unknown Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag) applies for the job. The school's headmistress (Danielle Proulx) is in a bind, so she hires this teacher-sans-portfolio, who makes an immediate connection with his class -- two members of which actually saw the dangling body, but all of whom have been rattled by the death.
Without revealing too much, Lazhar is contending with his own grief; rather than consoling, he should be consoled. But such is the stuff of "Monsieur Lazhar," whose emotional heart lies in its relativism: The dead teacher had been "accused" of hugging a distraught student; the administrators are more concerned with lawsuits than the emotional needs of their pupils; the parents, when they do show up, take any criticism of their children as personal affronts.
The atmosphere is poisoned, not just because of one dead teacher, but because human connections have been cut and cauterized. Lazhar, whose personal dignity and grief imbue him with both charm and gravitas, is the only one with perspective -- which, in this case, is a liability but also a gift, at least to viewers in search of a movie with soul.
PLOT An Algerian widower with a tragic past takes over a traumatized class of pre-teens in contemporary Montreal. RATING PG-13 (adult themes, some language)
CAST Mohamed Fellag, Sophie Nélisse, Émilien Néron
PLAYING AT Cinema Arts Centre, Huntington; Malverne Cinema
BOTTOM LINE Lovely, provocative drama with a memorable performance by Mohamed Fellag. (In French, English and Arabic with English subtitles)