This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. The new film, "Monsieur Lazhar," is a bittersweet comedy about an Algerian immigrant who gently takes into the role of teacher and comforter for a grief-stricken class of middle-school children in Montreal. The French Canadian film was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and last month it swept the Genies - those are Canada's national film prizes. "Monsieur Lazhar" opens in U.S. theaters this weekend. Pat Dowell reports.

PAT DOWELL, BYLINE: "Monsieur Lazhar" was originally a one-man play in which a teacher sits at his desk and talks both to the living and the dead. He's a grieving refugee seeking asylum in a world too busy with its own troubles to notice him, as he takes over a class whose teacher killed herself. Filmmaker Philippe Falardeau saw the play in 2007 and right on the spot told his producers, including Luc Dery, that this would be his next film.

LUC DERY: We had a bit of a moment when we went, hmm. It was a monologue basically. There was a lot to invent for him, let's just say, to make it into a film.

DOWELL: The director saw the opportunity to invent a fictional population for a place found in every community - a school. And Falardeau immediately saw the larger context of the character and the setting.

PHILIPPE FALARDEAU: I'm always looking for some kind of social canvas to a story and that comes from the period where I was interested in politics and international relations. And also, I think it forces me to really research my movie and not just write as a normal, you know, fiction author would do, just inventing things. I really research my stuff, and that also comes from the years I was a student in political science.

DOWELL: He went to Algeria to see what Lazhar's life might have been like there, and he got help figuring that out from his star, the Algerian comic and-writer-in-exile who goes by the single name Fellag. He'd starred in a Paris reading of the play. Director Falardeau also went to observe school - which he calls a small laboratory of life - to study how children interact, their curriculum, and, he says, to see how kids fidget.

FALARDEAU: (French spoken)


FALARDEAU: That's the kind of details that you cannot invent, that you have to recycle from real life.

DOWELL: "Monsieur Lazhar" is Philippe Falardeau's fourth film and like the others, combines comedy and tragedy in a way that often unsettles audiences. Producer Luc Dery says that for him Monsieur Lazhar is about the dignity of one immigrant. Dery's company also made "Incendies," the prize-winning 2010 Canadian immigrant drama, and has another film about the intersection of the Middle East and the West on the way. Dery says it's almost an accident that the company has come to be identified with this subject, but it's also a reflection of reality.

DERY: Pretty much everywhere in the Western world immigration is sort of a topic you cannot not address or reflect about in our day and age.

DOWELL: Director Philippe Falardeau says he preferred not to take what he calls the frontal approach to reflecting on the topic. Instead, he shows Lazhar confronted by his differences in more subtle ways. Coming from French-speaking Algeria, the teacher thinks he shares a common language with his students. But he's surprised when the kids are dismayed at an assignment of a French classic by Balzac.

FALARDEAU: (French spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED BOY: (French spoken)

FALARDEAU: (French spoken)

DOWELL: Falardeau also uses the scene as a comic touch on a complaint of French Canadians that they're made to feel like outsiders in Canada.

FALARDEAU: Language is always an issue back home. It's a survival issue. We're only seven million people speaking French in an ocean of, I don't know, 350 million-plus speaking English. So, dealing with the quality of our language and how we speak it and how we teach it and how we transmit it is always an issue for us. So it was also a part of this film.

DOWELL: Falardeau addresses the issue of immigration by telling the story of one immigrant, not even necessarily as an immigrant, just a human being.

FALARDEAU: I just wanted to show the immigrant as a normal person struggling with his own demons and what he could bring to this class and there's no reference to that the fact that he's probably a Muslim, and we don't care. And he drinks wine and I didn't make that an issue in the film. I didn't want to go there.

DOWELL: Next, Philippe Falardeau will venture into familiar territory - politics. He describes it as a black comedy about a Canadian politician. No word yet on what his research has dug up. For NPR News, this is Pat Dowell.

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