Far too often the word mundane carries with it the connotation of a story that will induce ennui. However, the mundane when skillfully deployed and dramatically rendered even a seemingly simple morality tale can be so universal and inviting that things like language, currency, and location are no barriers.
Such is the case with the Bulgarian film The Lesson. It’s a film whose title is even simpler than its premise, as the title belies the fact that the financial, and moral, complications a school teacher Nade (Margita Gosheva) faces are intertwined and coming at her from several different directions.
The threads that run through this film from beginning to end are: she’d trying to discover which of her students stole a wallet, she’s trying to chase down payment for recent translation work she did for a small company, and then get out of a financial mess in her personal life.
Yet, as the case usually is, each of these issues feeds off the other and they are intermingle wondrously. That is not the only thing that’s awe-inspiring here; one nearly needs to be reminded of the fact that this is, in fact, a film that’s co-directed (Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov). The result is such a singular vision you wish there’d be fewer roadblocks to co-directing. Regardless, in this film Grozeva and Valchanov clearly present a unified, powerful voice that is hynoptic to see.
The film becomes a further inspiration when reading the directors’ statement on the Film Movement release. A real bonus of their physical editions but I will preserve that surprise for those that get it, and also further tease that there’s a fascinating short documentary, Crooked Candy, about a man’s lifelong love affair with Kinder Eggs that must be seen by chocolate lovers and the young at heart.
The film’s neorealist qualities are an antidote not only to the ripped-from-headlines story but also to the overwhelming majority of films that seem to refuse to acknowledge that small stories can say big things and matter a great deal. It’s a drama that builds itself around relatively miniscule amounts of money, we at times don’t even know the total in local currency until later on (and web searches can confirm what the amounts translate to locally), and the point is they don’t matter. It’s about more than livelihood but survival and trying to do what’s right.
The film in its laid back way ups the suspense, about midway through in a way that makes it feel like a traditional third act. An indicator this films 100+ minutes were more than likely built in five-acts. However, there are still surprises, shocks, and drama in store in the latter half.
The central figure in the story is Nade. She is the one whom all events revolve around and must take decisive action when all others are unwilling to do anything much less the right thing. The least an audience asks of its protagonist is that they be watchable. Gosheva makes Nade much more than someone you want to watch but rather someone you have to watch. Her magnetism and sensitivity, intelligence, toughness, and at times impetuousness are all identifiable that make her one we’re drawn to whether we always agree with her decisions or not.
The Lesson, like any lesson, could be an experience that is didactic, drudgery or could be an experience you’ll likely hold on to and cherish for a long time. This film is far closer to the lattermost option on that list.