This is a quiet, not so little, (at 94 minutes) movie, which is both contemporary and uplifting. And it has a great deal of substance.
Based on a one-man play of the same name, it tells the story of an Algerian immigrant schoolteacher, Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Felag), who is hired to replace Martine Lacherce who has hanged herself in her classroom. She is discovered by one of the students, Simon (Emilien Neron), who is milk-monitor that morning. Shortly after this dramatic turn of events, Simon’s close friend Alice (Sophie Nelisse) slips past the teachers and also glimpses, through the classroom door, the deceased teacher. Suddenly, the gentle, totally believable playground small talk at this Montreal public school switches to a more dramatic level.
The school principal, Madame Vailloncourt (Danielle Proulx) is somewhat reluctant to hire Bachir when he responds to the ad. But she has been shocked by the suicide, and is desperate to restore some semblance of normality. As the school year progresses, we are treated to some wonderful scenes, in which the old fashioned, strict approach of the new teacher adjusts to the more modern, informal western classroom. Whilst there is a great deal of gentle humour and the motivation and devotion of Bashir to his young charges is clearly portrayed, so is the confronting political correctness of their western society.
It also gradually emerges that there is more to Bashir’s past than the school community realises. His appearances before the immigration authorities reveal that his wife and children have been the victims of terrorism in his former country, and he’s attempting to gain residency in Canada.
For an Australian audience, all the excellent cast will be ‘unknown’, but don’t let that, or the fact that it’s a French-Canadian production with subtitles, discourage you from seeing this perfect gem.