Director: Kristina Grozeva and Peter Valchanov
Cast: Margita Gosheva, Ivan Barnev, Ivan Savov and Ivanka Bratoeva
Running Time: 111 minutes
Release Date: December 4th
The influence of Belgian auteurs the Dardenne Brothers hangs heavy in The Lesson, the debut feature from writer/director team, Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov. While this is certainly evident in the style of the film, the handheld camera franticly following the main protagonist Nade (Margita Gosheva), often showing just the back of her head, it is the film’s themes that really make the similarities apparent, as she is pushed deeper and deeper into a desperate situation that severely tests his moral character.
When we first see Nade, an English teacher in a small Bulgarian town, she is addressing her students about the fact that one of them has been stealing money from unattended bags. After the culprit refuses to identify him or herself, Nade offers an opportunity for the suspect to return the money anonymously by placing it back into an envelope after school is finished. From these opening scenes we get a sense of the kind of person Nade is. Stern but willing to compromise, it is evident that she believes in her own moral code of what is right and wrong, a small detail soon after confirms this, when as she is walking home she spot a piece of rubbish lying on the ground and promptly places it into the bin. Of course moral codes are often tested in bad situations and that proves to be the case here as the circumstances in Nade’s home life lead her to take desperate actions.
One day after work, Nade returns home to find that her husband Mladen (Ivan Barnev), who is generally useless apart from raising their young daughter, has been skipping mortgage payments in order to buy parts for a camper van that he wants to sell. Nade’s attempts to find the money in order to save her home gradually start to crumble, the company she works for on the side as a translator collapses and her pride prevents her from borrowing money from her wealthy father with whom she has had a bad relationship with since his remarriage to a much younger woman not long after her mother’s death. With no other way out, she ends having to borrow money from a loan shark, whose sleazy motives only become clear when it is to late.
While Grizeva and Valchanov took their inspiration from a real life event in their native Bulgaria, an event which forms the basis of a last act plot twist, they are more interested in examining the circumstances that could lead a person to such a desperate action. It is here that their approach is more similar to that of Romanian New Wave filmmakers such as Cristi Puiu, Corneliu Porumbiou and Cristian Mungiu in terms with its grim slice of life portrayal. This downbeat reality is spoiled somewhat by the mechanics of the plot, which at times appear a little too neat for its own good. One scene in particular see Nade having to go to the bank after receiving a call saying that they have underestimated her payments and as a result her payments have come up slightly short. As she races to the bank, a series of obstacles get in her way: her car breaks down, her money from her purse has been stolen, and when she eventually makes it she finds out she has to pay a transaction charge. While there a Kafka-esque black comedy to it, there is staginess to the scene that puts it at odds with the rest of it. That the last act, which has its basis in reality, seems out of place within the drama, shows that perhaps the filmmakers haven’t succeed in exploring how a person would resort to such actions.
That said, thanks to the solid direction of Grizeva and Valchanov, and a fantastic central performance from Gosheva, The Lesson is completely engaging throughout. There may be cracks in its storytelling, but there is certainly enough talent on screen to cover it up.