As gripping as a thriller and as squirm-inducing as a horror film, the debut feature from Bulgarian co-directors Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov may ostensibly be a work of social realist fiction, but it’s not for the faint of heart and not for those whose arthouse sensibilities tend toward the delicate or the subtle. The Tokyo International Film Festival competition title is a blunt force trauma of a morality play, landing blow upon blow on a central character who is simply struggling to keep her head above water with a shred of dignity intact —if the film is a teacher, it’s one who believes in the value of a sharp cuff around the head as an educational technique. Yet there is no real physical violence on display here; the real achievement of the movie, an especially impressive one coming from filmmakers of relatively little experience, is that as a viewer you may flinch, quail and end up practically hiding behind your hands, but those visceral reactions are in response to the emotional and psychological damage being inflicted onscreen. Depending on your tolerance for the good-people-in-ever-worsening-situations school of cinema, “The Lesson” is either be a provocative statement about how our ideals and identities can begin to crumble and fray in the face of extraordinary pressure or an all-out ordeal. But there’s no denying it makes an impact, and that Grozeva and Valchanov thoroughly deserve their San Sebastian win for Best New Directors.
It starts with a pop, as English teacher Nade (Margarita Gosheva), gets the children in her class to parse the English sentence “Someone has just stolen my wallet” as a way to let them know that in fact one of them has just stolen her wallet. Her stern but calm approach to stemming this pilfering might make us think that it’s an innocuous event, yet the leaden way it’s shot and the way the camera hovers just slightly too long through each uncomfortable silence, transmits volumes of foreshadowing. And soon we learn that while the sum stolen from Nade may seem trifling, in fact her financial straits are so dire that at one point we will see her scrabble in public fountain for a few leva. Threatened with foreclosure on the family home where she lives with her ineffectual, weak-willed husband and young daughter, saddled with a broken camper van no one will buy and repeatedly given excuses from her other job as an English translator as to when she’ll get paid, Nade’s situation becomes desperate, and working against a very loudly ticking clock, she eventually seeks out a loan shark.
But what sets “The Lesson” apart from other miserabilist takes on the plight of the working poor is the very precise way it deals with liminality and how morals and ideals can fracture in the Wild West frontierlands of our social identities. Nade is being pushed to the very lowest threshold of the middle class life she’s led till now into an impossible limbo in which the threat of abject poverty may be very real, but the mortification of “mere” social embarrassment still retains its power. Nade is respectable, well-educated, and above all decent. It feels like a mistake that she of all people should be somehow caught up in the machinations of a faceless, uncaring system, and yet the frightening ease with which that happens suggests it could happen to any of us. Nade’s story at times feels almost designed to give us a sense of the precipice over which so many of us blithely hover: what if we were suddenly forced to look down?
The nearest equivalent we can think of for Nade’s journey is that of the Marion Cotillard character in the Dardenne Brothers’ Cannes favorite “Two Days One Night.” Both films feature women who have to embark on an odyssey of self-abasement, pride-swallowing and all-out grovelling in order to keep the wolf of poverty and total social marginalization from the door. But if anything, this Bulgarian film goes further than the Belgian, turning the screws even a few more times and ending on a far more ambivalent note. Nade may have survived but has sacrificed so much of her moral identity along the way that she is no longer who she was, least of all in her own eyes.
These later twists could easily feel like a contrivance or two too far (though the final coup de grace was apparently the real-life kernel from which the screenplay grew), but by that stage we’re so far down the rabbit hole, have endured so many Kafka-like nightmare situations and have waded through so many thorny ethical quagmires with Nade that we can’t help but go along with them. Due in no small part to Gosheva’s magnificently un-self-pitying central performance, the film may strain credulity from a coldly logical standpoint at times, but its emotional and psychological realism are airtight. So as a series of choose-your-own-adventure style dilemmas (it’s to the screenplay’s credit that only rarely did we find ourselves thinking “well, I wouldn’t handle it that way”) it’s a story of inexorable decline that remains compelling and engaging rather than outright depressing. And as a fable, or a ‘lesson,’ it’s a clever, lean exploration of the sometimes surprising priorities you hold when your back is to the wall: which of your ideals will hold out when unjust push comes to desperate shove, and which will be the first you sacrifice. [B+]