Review: The Lesson
Channeling Bulgaria’s malaise in the aftermath of Communist rule, writer-directors Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov have fashioned a morality tale that gathers force gradually. The Lesson follows an elementary schoolteacher who is driven by a righteous desire to teach her students the value of honesty, only to learn firsthand what it means to resort to desperate measures when confronted with dire economic circumstances.
In the film’s opening scene, a classroom of students is confronted with a sentence written in English on a blackboard: “Somebody has just stolen my wallet.” This turns out to be more than just a language exercise: one of the students is in fact a victim of a theft, and the teacher, Nade (Margita Gosheva), asks her to read the sentence aloud. Nade has good intentions, but primarily succeeds at humiliating the girl, Katya. When no one steps forward to admit responsibility, she asks Katya to search her classmates’ book-bags. When no evidence emerges, the teacher makes each student give a coin to Katya. “So now the thief owes the entire class,” says Nade.
It's a prelude that stands as a metaphor to the deep-seated difficulties of a nation disillusioned by the dissolution of the Eastern Bloc and the struggles for new prosperity that arrived with democracy. Ideals are not for the faint of heart, and Nade learns her own lesson on that score when the bank comes calling for her home. Grozeva and Valchanov proceed to spin an intimate morality tale against the backdrop of chaotic sociopolitical conditions. If the film’s story is indebted to Dostoevsky, its filmmaking imitates the Dardenne Brothers circa Lorna’s Silence, featuring handheld camerawork that focuses on Nade. She is the only character whom the directors shoot in close-up, though the roving camera captures the ambivalent reactions of her students and family members to what she does.
Nade is shackled by her sense of fairness and a tendency toward passive-aggressiveness. Her personality is put to the test when she arrives home one day to find that the bank has sent a bill collector with a police escort to her family’s house. The bank plans to put their house on the market because her husband Mladen (Ivan Barnev), a drunk, has failed to pay the mortgage. She is caught in a bind because her boss at her second job as a translator is delaying payment, and her pride prevents her from asking her wealthy father for money. Faced with the prospect that she, her husband, and their 4-year-old daughter may be put out on the street, she resorts to borrowing from a loan shark.
During one key scene, Nade’s poor decision-making ends up feeling more like a plot contrivance than part of a plausible character portrait. A particularly tense sequence of scenarios concerning a few coins begins after she leaves her purse on her school desk as bait for the class thief. If only she would have checked her purse before she left the building to pay the transaction fee the band has suddenly reminded her about! There is also a self-sabotaging confrontation with her widowed father’s young new girlfriend that seems overplayed, until the revelation of some extenuating information later in the film.
The Lesson is a decent feature debut for Grozeva and Valchanov that could have benefited from less heavy-handed plotting and more placement of the burden of story development on Nade’s actions. The film’s low-key, earnest performances and tonally consistent style do hold the attention. When Nade’s desperation results in a shocking final act, it is as underplayed as the rest of the movie’s developments. The film then comes full circle with an outcome that evokes not so much crime and punishment as crime and disillusionment.