The Lesson is another gem of of European Cinema that seems to have slipped by without too much fanfare. Well done New Wave Films for getting the film into UK theatrical distribution. It’s one of the most accomplished first features I’ve seen and notable as a directing job undertaken by a couple, Peter Valchanov and Kristina Grozeva. He is more inclined to editing and she to scriptwriting. They both directed and were together on set – but so was their 3 year-old daughter, so they needed good communication with their crew. They were fortunate to get funding from Greece and also extra funding to finish the film for an international release from the German TV station ZDF. Even so, the film had to be made over several weeks/months as funding became available. They had a professional actor, Margita Gosheva, in the lead role of Nadezhda, but many parts were played by non-actors (often relatives or colleagues). Margita Gosheva’s husband Ivan Barnev, also an actor, plays Nade’s husband.
The story is ‘torn from the headlines’ – a technique pioneered by Hollywood studios, especially Warner Bros in the 1930s. This headline referred to the desperate and surprising actions of a teacher. In The Lesson, Nade, a high school English teacher and part-time translator is faced with the kind of dilemma (finding money quickly to avoid losing the family home) that might make her consider any kind of action – and she does things that severely question her own code of ethical conduct. At the same time she is faced with a thief in her class and how to deal with the situation. The filmmakers say that the film is the first in a potential trilogy – the next will feature a railway worker who finds a large sum of money on the railway track.
The style and approach
The film is primarily a realist drama but it also includes elements of comedy (the comedy of embarrassment?) and eventually turns into a thriller narrative. The filmmakers believe that by adding these ‘popular genre’ elements they are able to make the film more, rather than less, realistic:
. . . this is very important point to us as directors and the stories that we want to tell. We want to tell dramatic stories, but with a bitter smile. For example, our previous short film, was more of a comedy with elements of drama and now it’s the opposite. It’s very important to mix these genres because for us this mix of humour and drama makes the story closer to real life.
Some reviewers have compared the style and approach to that of Ken Loach or the Dardenne Brothers. Like these filmmakers, Valchanov and Grozeva have used experience of making documentaries in their approach to making a fiction feature and they discuss using documentary methods in shooting the classroom scenes. This is also evident in the use of long shots and long takes – especially in the sequence when the rushing Nade discovers her car has run out of fuel and she takes a shortcut to catch a bus.
Loach perhaps uses more melodrama in his films – The Lesson eschews one element of melodrama by dispensing with a music soundtrack. Everything depends then on the sound design which is very good. The Dardenne Brothers do change their approach sometimes to suit the nature of the story (e.g. adding comedy or thriller elements). What is common to all three is the creation of strong characters who find themselves at the centre of events they struggle to control. Nade is in many ways like Sandra, the central character played by Marion Cotillard in the Dardenne Brothers film Two Days, One Night (2014).
The film depends on Margita Gosheva’s performance – the camera is always with her and we are forced to experience her distress while trying to get beneath her veneer of control. It’s a remarkable performance, aided, I think by mise en scène and framing. Nade’s mother has died a few years earlier and she was clearly a beautiful woman. A large portrait of her mother on the wall is often in shot, almost as if she is looking over what her daughter is up to. (Nade in turn has a small daughter who also plays a role in the set of ethical dilemmas Nade faces.
It’s probably useful to know that the currency in Bulgaria is the ‘lev’, which is worth around 40p, so a 10 lev note is around £4 and at one point the hero’s whole future seems to depend on a missing 60-70p.
It’s difficult being a filmmaker in Bulgaria where around ten films are made each year and cinema attendance is only 0.7 visits per head of population. The only source of funds is the Ministry of Culture and there is still the suggestion of networks of the ‘privileged’ that existed before 1989. The film comments on both the economic crisis of 2008 and its aftermath and the possibility of corruption in a small town where those networks from the past may be re-appearing. The Lesson is a co-production with Greece and this seems a good strategy. Following the excellent Thirst (2015) at the London Film Festival last October, also by a female director, it looks like something worthwhile is happening against the odds in Bulgaria. I notice now that Ivan Barnev is in both films and that he played the lead role in Jiri Menzel’s I Served the King of England (Czech Republic/Slovakia 2006).
The quotes are taken from interviews and the Pressbook, obtainable via the New Wave Films website: www.newwavefilms.co.uk
(Caution: There is a slight spoiler towards the end of the trailer)