Monsieur Lazhar, from French-Canadian director Philippe Falardeau, screens in Sydney Film Festival‘s Official Competition this month. It won the City of Toronto Award for Best Canadian Feature at the Toronto International Film Festival last year; I saw it when it opened Abu Dhabi Film Festival in October. When I first read the write-up, it sounded like a made-for-TV drama to me, and I didn’t expect much. I was surprised by how much I actually loved it. A quiet little film set in a classroom in snowy Montreal, it may have not been the best choice of film for a gala opening night on a hot beach in the Middle East. But I remember being captivated by it, and feeling temporarily swept away from my gruelling workload.

Monsieur Lazhar is a fine drama along the lines of another French-language title set in a multicultural classroom, Laurent Cantet’s The Class (2008), though Falardeau’s film is far more gentle and uplifting. Indeed, Monsieur Lazhar has shown broad appeal among audiences wherever it’s screened. Perhaps anyone can relate to its vision of adults and children working together to deal with a tragedy. It’s also a splendid production: beautifully filmed, treating its subject matter with skill and sensitivity, and marked by terrific acting from adult and child actors alike. Algerian-French comedian Fellag carries the film with dignity, his expressive features betraying a glint of humor and a well of emotion beneath his stern composure. The film addresses the complex topic of Canada’s cultural identity frankly, while keeping the focus on universal themes.

The story begins on a bleak note. One bitter winter’s morning, an elementary school teacher is found dead in her classroom. The school and the community reel in shock. In the weeks that follow, the children – all of them 11 or 12 years old – are anxious, lost; their parents perhaps more so. Specialists are called in to counsel the kids. The principal scrambles to find a substitute teacher.

As if by grace, a man named Bachir Lazhar arrives suddenly and offers to fill the position. He says he taught grade school for 19 years back home in Algeria. When asked for his qualifications, he states drolly, “I’m available now. They need a teacher, no?”

So this quiet, rather prim man begins teaching the class according to how he thinks a classroom should be run. He insists on respect and courtesy, and on silence when he speaks. His old-school ways clash with the school’s open, egalitarian approach. M. Lazhar is seen as rigid and behind the times.

The students aren’t sure what to make of the man, but their grief makes them malleable. Despite his authoritarian nature, he shows them compassion and understanding during a confusing time. Grimly, he must teach them in the same classroom where their former teacher died. He’s accused of not respecting the legacy of the dead woman. The room has been repainted in a feeble effort to improve the atmosphere, but she continues to haunt the story.

It turns out M. Lazhar has already dealt with his own woes. Early on we find out that he and his family were the victims of political persecution in Algiers; he still suffers nightmares. In this light, his patience and good humor with the children show remarkable strength of character.

We’re not surprised when M. Lazhar’s old-fashioned methods break through the limitations of the system and he finds success – the children’s grades improve, and they start talking through their grief. What matters is how Falardeau makes the formula work, finding a nice balance of melodrama and subdued realism, letting each scene feel natural however much it tugs at our emotions.

It’s a gorgeous film. The muted, wintry palette of greys, browns and pale pastels and the cold, indirect sunlight illuminate the story perfectly. One memorable scene features a series of close-ups of the children’s faces (African, Chilean and Arabic alongside French-Canadian) as they pose for school photos; their openness and sincerity speak volumes about the film’s heart.

Perhaps it can’t be like this in real life; perhaps an asylum-seeker can’t appear out of nowhere to win the hearts of a group of children after such a painful tragedy. However, in one revealing scene, the substitute teacher encourages his students to express themselves by writing fables, and the nature of this story becomes clear. Monsieur Lazhar is a kind of a fable itself.

This review was originally published on Abu Dhabi Film Festival’s website: Fables of Compassion: Monsieur Lazhar