The most gifted actors are able to convey all emotion and inner anguish with their eyes alone. It’s through the window to the soul of The Lesson’s (2014) protagonist, Nade, that the directorial pairing of Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov – who also penned the script – tell an age-old allegory of right and wrong with a number of substantial twists, toppling dominoes with patient regularity in a spiralling tale of desperation. The film is built around a superb performance by Margita Gosheva, whose Nade strives to save her family from ignominy.
The sound of chalk on blackboard is one with which viewers of a certain age will be familiar. Nade, an English teacher, scrawls ‘Somebody has just stolen my wallet’ after one of her pupils finds their lunch money missing. It’s with this premise that The Lesson begins. A teacher seeking to impart an important life lesson in her quest to find the culprit will be forced to ask similarly hard questions of her own conduct as a mother and wife struggling to avoid a bank-sponsored auction of her home; her layabout husband having wasted money destined for mortgage payments on a campervan beyond repair.
The long shots and long takes employed in an ominously quiet first act are soon drawn in closer as the pressure mounts. The initial composure of cinematographer Krum Rodriguez’s handiwork degenerates into unsteady mobile framing which follows Nade with ever-increasing scrutiny of her frantic movements. Despite the relative calm and diegetic noise of wind through trees, children playing and birds chirping there is an underlying sense of unease which pervades every moment and continues to grow. This tone is reinforced visually by a morose colour palette dulled down to such a degree that even sunshine appears hued grey. The apathy displayed by Nade’s entirely useless husband is on one level infuriating but does mean that decisions made, and by extension the road which the narrative follows, are her choice alone. As dead end options appear on every avenue Nade is forced to borrow money from a typically lascivious loan shark who seeks repayment in kind.
The inexplicable positioning of a chainsaw in one key scene is a delightfully dark piece of mise-en-scène as events seem to spiral out of control. So close is our alignment with Nade’s point of view that every ounce of desperation, resignation, indignation and frustration that pour forth from her eyes while she maintains an outward calm is acutely felt. Gosheva shoulders the film and despite her purposefully pallid complexion she shines with a highly impressive turn. A universal tale from off the beaten track, The Lesson’s commercial release is long overdue having premièred at the 2014 Toronto Film Festival. This Bulgarian offering is a maturely crafted, finely tuned and quietly profound drama that’s not to be missed.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens