Monday, March 2, 2015

A Bulgarian learning experience: Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov's riveting THE LESSON

There are so many lessons learned by the school-teacher heroine of THE LESSON (Urok), not to mention by us enrapt viewers, that it is difficult to know where to begin: First, maybe, this: Don't under any circumstances allow your vehicle-obsessed, no-account husband to handle the family's finances. Moving on, once it is clear that your very home is about to be auctioned off from under you by your local bank, please don't get involved with your town's skeevy, sleazy money-lender unless you're comfortable with paying back your loan via sex work. There are many of these life lessons, small and large, to be gleaned -- if you've got the balls to watch. Our protagonist, who is offered little choice in the matter, very quickly manages to put herself smack in the middle of lies, avarice, bureaucracy and corruption involving both the individual and the state.

Writers/directors Kristina Grozeva (below) and Petar Valchanov (at left, who also edited the film) begin their little game in the classroom, as we see written on the blackboard, "My wallet has been stolen." We westerners will immediately imagine that this is a class for visitors to Eastern Europe who need to know the important catch phrases that will be of use to us. But, no: Our teacher, Nade, has written the phrase to alert her class that her wallet really has been stolen -- by one of them. And she intends to get it back.
Things do not go quite as Nade plans, and it soon seems clear that this woman has a tad too much certainty about how life should roll out. (Perhaps she was raised elsewhere than Bulgaria, where the film is set.) In any case, she is soon up to her ears in stuff that she ought not to have to handle, and watching her wriggle and cajole, plead and insist is painful but somehow also bracing.

This is due in large part to the work of the fine actress -- Margita Gosheva (above and below, right) -- who plays Nade. Ms Gosheva manages to swing on a dime from confused and vulnerable to angry and determined without missing a beat, including all of those little moments that lead from one fraught state into the next.

In the course of the film, we meet everyone from Nade's insignificant other (center, right, above), though he proves awfully good with the couple's young child (at left, above); her successful and fairly wealthy father (center left, above) whom she accuses of causing her mother's untimely sickness and death; the fellow she does freelance translation for and who owes her a lot of back pay; her students and co-workers; and a few other townspeople who interact with our gal, as the vise in which she finds herself grows tighter, faster.

One of the odd and interesting things about this movie is how suspenseful it is, even as we're learning more and more about Nade and the ins and out of Bulgarian society. It is finally a toss-up as to which consumes us more. Nade's moralistic tendencies both help and hinder her, as she must lower her "standards" over and over in order to achieve her ends. By the film's finish, little remains of the "ordered world," pretense though it may have been, that greeted us at the film's beginning.

The fungibility of everything from relationships and power to forms of payment and transportation come into play here, and Nade proves surprisingly adept at rolling with the punches. Some of the strongest scenes include an apology she must make to her father's girlfriend and her coming to understand exactly what her use of the loan shark (above, right) means to the well-being of her family.

If there is a weakness to the movie, it arrives with the penultimate scene in which the filmmakers have our heroine decide to make things right -- but then neglect to show us how this happens. Oh, we know what has happened, all right, but leaving the scene out makes the ending seem far too easy and thus unearned. We allow this because we so keenly hope that Nade will succeed. But this is not quite the same thing as giving us a fully realized film.

We'll hope that the next movie from this pair, individually or together, proves even better because, clearly, the two are banging on the door to the pantheon of first-rate realist filmmakers. We shall hear from them again. Meanwhile, The Lesson -- from Film Movement, in Bulgarian with English subtitles and running 105 fast minutes -- opens this Wednesday, March 4, at Film Forum in New York City. To see further screenings around the country, click here and scroll down.  

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