A very thoughtful Canadian movie (deservedly nominated for Best Foreign Movie Oscar last year), about an Algerian immigrant who becomes a substitute teacher at a Montreal elementary school, Monsieur Lazhar surprises by its measured candidness and lack of sentimentality. The preview makes it look like yet another movie about an inspirational teacher, but Monsieur Lazhar is thornier and wiser than that. For as his new students are grieving the loss of a beloved teacher, he deals too with unbearable loss. The movie gently juxtaposes the difference in proportions between a well to do country like Canada, with what looks like an amazing public school and lucky children who are overprotected from life, and a politically unstable, volatile country like Algeria, where chaos and violence actually happen to families, but it never does this with the pious eye of the comfortably superior towards the victimized. Quite the contrary, it calls out our p.c pieties about immigrants and the education of children with wit and poignancy.

Director-writer Phillipe Falardeau has picked a wonderful group of children, all very good actors, and in Mohammed Fellag he has a charismatic protagonist who is not out to jerk out our sympathy without displaying an edge. Monsieur Lazhar has opinions, he’s direct, and he comes from a less coddled country. He’s not familiar with the p.c pedagogical politics of the new world, but he truly cares about the children. He struggles to retain his dignity even in a mild, relatively welcoming place like Canada. Without exaggeration or bombast, he refuses to concede to anything but honesty when dealing with the children’s loss. Parents and teachers have every which way of handling the children’s bewilderment, except for actually confronting it head on and admitting that kids are intelligent and sophisticated enough to deal with it. All their well-intentioned obfuscations and euphemisms just lead to more bristling from the kids, who can sense adults talking down to them. Monsieur Lazhar does not understand this. As the principal prohibits him from sharing with the entire student body a letter that a kid read in class, he says, “it’s not the letter that is violent, it’s life that is violent”. Implication is, you may not know this, living as you do in Canada, but you don’t do kids any favors by hiding from them the bitter complexities of life and death. The movie’s command of tone is so assured, that you don’t notice the emotional temperature rising until almost the very end, when some twists of fate reveal, that surprise surprise, life is not fair, and endings are not happy, but mixed. Bittersweet happy, if you consider the good Monsieur Lazhar has done to these children, and the good they have done to him.

A truly moving film.