Shot on a microscopic budget in 19 days, with a brilliant performance by Margita Gosheva in the leading role of Nadezhda, a grade school English teacher in Bulgaria who is barely getting by on her pitiful wages, The Lesson is a hard-edged morality tale, with a distinctly bleak view of human society, from neophyte directors Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov. Nadezhda puts up with students who steal money from her purse, a ne’er do well husband who doesn’t pay the mortgage so he can put the money into his worthless RV, a father from whom she is understandably estranged, and most of all, a governmental system that is thoroughly corrupt, designed to keep the poor in a state of perpetual penury, forcing Nadezhda to borrow from a brutal loan shark to keep her home when all other avenues of help fail.
Shot in long takes, with absolutely no music on the soundtrack (though, perhaps predictably, there is a light score in the film’s trailer), The Lesson inevitably recalls the stripped-down austerity of the Dardenne brothers, as well as Robert Bresson, but compared to the Dardennes’ recent Two Days, One Night, which I admit I was quite taken with – given the swill that floats around theaters and VOD today – The Lesson is every way more uncompromising, more brutal, less cosmetic, and more convincingly open-ended; in the film’s final moments, we don’t know precisely what will happen to Nadezhda as a result of her last-ditch attempt to pay off the loan sharks, but we get the distinct feeling that it won’t be something good.
As the directors of the film make clear, The Lesson – the title can be taken in many different ways – is an indictment of a world in which only power and money rule, and all other considerations are summarily swept aside. As they note, “We wanted to tell the story harshly, as a part of life. We strived to be real to the extreme, to create a painfully authentic film story. We got deep into the teacher’s inner world, we tackled her inner conflicts, her fight with her own morality.
One of the main tasks for us as directors was to develop rich and deep human personalities. Together with [our cinematographer] Krum Rodriguez we decided that the camera had to be unnoticed and contemplative, to look carefully at the details and the action, without being obvious. The film was shot in a real provincial town. Most of the small parts were played by real people, not actors. Our main actors had to blend in naturally, they had to partner with the non-professionals, and their performances had to be as authentic and real as possible. Our goal was that the audience wouldn’t be able to tell an actor from a non-actor in the finished film.
Margita Gosheva is a real discovery for us in this sense. After she read the script we changed some lines and situations, but the main work was done on set when she was put in the real situations with the real class of 30 children. The sense of authenticity and real life was leading in each element – make-up, costumes, set design, light and sound.
In the beginning we started shooting just different episodes of the film as a teaser while we were trying to find money for the production, but the cast and crew were so inspired by the story that they didn’t want to stop until we had finished the last shot. Everyone worked for deferred payments and we are truly thankful to the cast and crew who were fully devoted to the filmmaking process despite the minimal time we had for the shooting, and the difficult conditions we were working due to our micro budget.
The film didn’t receive production funding by the Bulgarian Film Center –just like our previous film, Jump (which went on to receive numerous awards at festivals and was nominated for the European Film Awards last year). Both films we financed ourselves, looking for private investors willing to risk their money. We’re forced to make films without the support of the only national funding body we have in Bulgaria.
Despite this we strive to keep making our films. The Lesson is the first feature in a planned trilogy. The three stories are inspired by the living reality, but we don’t intend to tell biographical stories, we use this inspiration only as a creative start. The unifying element between the three stories is the theme of the quiet rebellion of the little person against the mercantile, soulless and cynical world we live in.”
As Joe Leydon noted in his review of the film on September 28, 2014 in Variety at the San Sebastian Film Festival, “thanks in large measure to the sympathy Gosheva elicits and the strength she conveys, Nadezhda’s ultimate solution to her daunting problems comes off as equal parts triumph and tragedy. Indeed, a second viewing of the film underscores just how slyly Gosheva and her co-directors lay the groundwork for Nadezhda’s actions to seem, given the particulars of her character and her situation, inevitable. The Lesson earned for Grozeva and Valchanov the New Directors award at the San Sebastian Film Festival. Don’t be surprised if other accolades follow.”
And indeed they did: The Lesson went on to win the Ingmar Bergman Debut Award at the Goteborg Film Festival, and was an official selection at the Toronto International Film Festival, the San Sebastian Film Festival, the Reykjavik International Film Festival, the Warsaw Film Festival, the Tokyo Film Festival, the Palm Springs Film Festival, and the Goteborg Film Festival. Now, finally, the film is receiving limited release in the US via VOD from Film Movement, a very interesting distribution company which seeks out international films that might otherwise pass under the radar, and releases one film per month on VOD, and later DVD, as a subscription model.
Film Movement is thus providing an invaluable service for all those who love the cinema; none of the films they select would probably get a US release otherwise, and by focusing on younger, more innovative filmmakers, Film Movement thus takes the place of the old art house circuit of 35mm theaters that used to dot the international landscape, but which have disappeared thanks to the ongoing predations of Netflix and other mainstream content providers. So, see The Lesson if you possibly can – it’s an uncompromising, and absolutely fearless example of new independent international cinema, something that all thoughtful viewers should absolutely support.