The Lesson (Urok)
Bulgaria (2014) Dirs. Kristina Grozeva & Petar Valchanov
No-one likes being in debt. It may start with a couple of quid here and there but as life continues to deal you some dodgy hands, it can soon spiral out of control until you are trapped in a pit of despair, your creditors standing above you shovelling more dirt on top of you until you are completely buried. This low-key film from Bulgaria all too astutely essays the struggle against the persistent burden of debt.
Nadezhda (Margita Gosheva) is an English teacher and part-time translator, upset that one of her students has stolen some money from her purse. She tries to expose and punish the culprit to little avail. Meanwhile Nadezha returns home to find a bailiff arguing with her feckless husband Mladen (Ivan Barnev), learning that instead of repaying their mortgage he has been using the money for other means.
With the house due to be repossessed and auctioned off by the bank, Nadezhda does her best to raise the necessary funds to keep the house and clear their debts but fate has other ideas. As the situation worsens and the windows of opportunity keep closing on her, Nadezhda resorts to the desperate measure of borrowing from a seedy loan shark (Stefan Denolyubov) whose terms of repayment test Nadezhda’s integrity and humility.
It is irrelevant that this film was made in Bulgaria, the story and suffering within is one that is universally understood, and it shouldn’t be much of a surprise to learn that the inspiration for The Lesson can be found in a real life event. The title has an ironic double meaning with the main protagonist being a teacher about to embark on a course of education she never expected to find herself on, that has a direct ramification on the moral inculcation she hopes to instil in her class.
This is a tale which could easily have been treated with a big budget presentation, and as such would be rife with exaggerated plot beats, tropes, and similar indulgences, overegging a simple drama. One can imagine Hollywood casting a glamorous marquee name to face the piling misery and obstacles to be overcome, lacing each scene with a melodramatic frisson en route to a feel good ending.
But this isn’t Hollywood and thank goodness for that. The writing-directing team behind this film, Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov, show no such inclination to make a spectacle out this scenario, opting to go in the opposite direction. You won’t find a single note of music anywhere in this film – not even for the credits – whilst the mise-en-scene is very much naturalistic and documentary style, shot largely with a handheld camera.
Despite being robbed, Nadezhda isn’t so much angry as disappointed, relayed through the calm and deliberate way she tries to wheedle out the culprit. But, once she returns home and we meet her husband and sick young daughter, we realise that the stolen money was a sum she could ill-afford to lose. Aside from being an alcoholic, Malden is also hopeless, demonstrated by an embarrassing test drive of a campervan he is trying to sell that breaks down a few seconds into the journey.
Elsewhere, a firm Nadezhda did some translations for is holding out on her payments, always promising a transfer but never following through, even when Nadezhda explains the pressing need for the money. She tries to swallow her pride and ask her loaded father (Ivan Savo) for help, but the inability to suppress her intense hatred for his ditzy, much younger girlfriend means Nadezhda leaves empty handed.
One could argue that having the woman in the family be the sole breadwinner and lone sensible head is a bit of a cliché but in the current climate of sexual equality, it actually works more of a potent reminder that women are often the sturdiest pillars in a family unit. Perhaps it is a cynical tactic to engender greater sympathy than a male protagonist might would but in this instance, Nadezhda is such a strongly written human character that she earns it through respect more than anything.
As is the case in life, the “system” is very much against Nadezhda finding a quick and easy solution to their woes, from the creditors shifting the goal posts on the repayments to learning seven minutes before the bank shuts that Nadezhda needs to pay a fee before a crucial time-sensitive transaction can be put through. It’s hard not to shake your head at seeing Nadezhda reduced to raiding a nearby coin fountain to scrape up this measly fee she sadly can’t even afford.
The other side of having a female protagonist is in the exploitation of the loan shark Nadezhda is indebted to. One look at this lecherous, unshaven slob and it is immediately apparent that he will have a lascivious and humiliating back-up plan for Nadezhda should be default on her repayment. Again, had she been a radiant beauty it would have been too difficult to buy into; Nadezhda isn’t unattractive though, carrying herself with a certain poise that a slimeball holding the Sword of Damocles over her would want to try to break her resolve.
Margita Gosheva is absolutely spellbinding as Nadezhda, presenting her as an ineffably strong yet relatable woman who can be held up as a totem for both genders to admire rather than an unattainable, farfetched ideal. Whether it is a major scene, like the ones where Nadezhda is holding court in the classroom or a scaled moment of inner turmoil and moral insecurity, the one constant is the nuance and subtleties Gosheva brings to the performance that define her.
A gnarly and intense work of social relevance The Lesson reaffirms Shakespeare’s adage from Hamlet, “Neither a borrower nor a lender be” but does so with stark realism and gritty urgency. As a footnote, the real-life subject of this film is apparently still with her deadbeat husband – some people just never learn…