The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity – designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny of man.

Ernest Becker, “The Denial of Death” (1973)

There is little doubt that we live in a culture of paradoxes, especially when it comes to raising children. Parents are apt at letting their children know when it is time to go to bed or to clear their rooms – the practical, trivial things, – but seem to be at a loss when discussing those matters which will mold their children into veritable human beings. Among the many concepts which inhabit the proverbial list of aversive topics is that of death. For all its emotional extravagance, Western society remains largely affixed to death-denying, in which grief suppression and avoidance to discussions about death, particularly with children, are a common practise. Thus, when tragedy strikes, it is the children who must deal with an emotion still largely foreign to them, alone.

Monsieur Lazhar is set in such a world: an elementary school in grey Montreal, roads lined with snow dunes and decorated with the imprints of boots. While it is tempting to draw comparisons to similar pedagogically-inspirational films such as Goodbye, Mr ChipsDead Poet’s Society, or Les choristes, it would be a discredit to Falardeau to place Monsieur Lazhar in such a category. The real triumph of this film is not a finale of heart-rending jubilance, but in the subtle realism of an attempt at normalcy, which really, is all that can be asked of grieving children. It is about loss and recovery, forgiveness and exile, and about allowing others to share in our burdens so that we may not be alone.

The heart of this film lies in its naturalistic elegance, one that observes, not directs. It beats steadily in the warm relationship which develops between Bachir Lazhar and the class of children, all beautifully naturalistic and unaffected as they deal, each in their own way, with the suicide of their teacher. Mohamed Fellag as Bachir perfectly embodies the balance of gentle compassion and personal grief, his eyes softly haunted by demons which threaten to uproot him. The lonely domesticity of his homelife contrasted with his interactions with the children and fellow teachers at school paint a portrait of a man struggling with his own placement in the world, as he simultaneously struggles to help the children make sense of a senseless act. He is faced with resistance from all sides in his persistence to challenge the children, whether it be with Balzac or speaking openly about the tragedy. However, in gaining their trust through simple acts of kindness, he is able to succeed where the other adults in their lives have failed, and so initiates the road to recovery for them all, handed with the knowledge and the feeling that although tragedies occur in isolation, the suffering afterwards need not be.

In his final assignment for the class, Bachir asks them to write a fable about injustice. His own, aptly, is the metaphor of a chrysalis and butterfly – the womb of death, from which emerges life in an innocent act of rebirth. Together, the children and Bachir learn from each other begin to deal with their tragedies in a quiet, genuine way which precludes any sort of sentimentality which might otherwise mar its honesty. Both quietly humourous and tender, Monsieur Lazhar is a subtle masterpiece, inspirational in a manner born from the ability to connect with another human being; and share in each other’s experiences of love and forgiveness, without fault or shame.