Canada’s nominee for best foreign film at the 2012 Oscars didn’t open in the United States until this April, after it had already lost to Iran’s incredible A Separation. That may explain why we overlooked this subtle tale of healing. It opens with an awful discovery at a Montreal middle school; while the kids were playing in the school yard, a beloved teacher has hung herself in the classroom. An Algerian immigrant named Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag) volunteers himself as a replacement, appearing almost as if by magic. There’s something of Mary Poppins in the secretive Bachir; he’s fair but stern and a little stiff (he makes the mistake of boring them with Balzac) and because of his own dark past, turns out to be just the right teacher for these kids at this time. The mystery of why the beloved teacher killed herself seems to propel the narrative—was it the fault of the troublemaker who, coincidentally (or not) found her?—but Bachir serves as the moral compass that steers the children, and eventually, the film, to the only answer that matters.
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