Directed by Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov
Opens March 4 at Film Forum
If neo-realism was a baby born out of the rubble of Italy after World War II, it would be a senior citizen now. But the Dardenne brothers and Abbas Kiarostami lent it new life in the 90s. The Dardennes’ use of handheld camera has become a style like any other, imitated by filmmakers with no connection to their leftist politics. While I can’t say that’s exactly the case for Bulgarian directors Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov, their feature debut The Lesson does seem to take most of its cues from other films, despite its ripped-from-the-headlines plot.
Schoolteacher Nade (Margita Gosheva) tries to give her class a lesson in honesty after uncovering a minor theft. She’s about to discover the power of money to ruin her life. Her house is going to be foreclosed because her husband (Ivan Barnev) has spent the mortgage payments on repairs for his car. She turns to her wealthy father (Ivan Savov) for loans, but she can’t conceal her distaste for the man, and keeps sabotaging herself. Finally, she sees a loan shark, but his demands lead to one desperate act.
This is the kind of film where a woman wearing makeup and having large breasts is seen as a sign of her stupidity. (Nade, of course, doesn’t wear visible makeup.) The direction apes the Dardennes, even down to following characters’ backs as they walk. The cinematography is tinted either blue or gray, the latter sufficing to convey Nade’s miserable mood. However, the brothers’ humanism is missing here, replaced by pissiness and cruelty. Grozeva and Valchanov’s sensibility is more akin to Rainer Werner Fassbinder, at best, and Lars von Trier, at worst. (I can easily picture Nade walking here from a von Trier film.) The emphasis on the dire consequences of petty theft recalls Bresson’s L’Argent, but without his mystery. The narrative doesn’t follow a three-act structure so much as set up an obstacle course for Nade. The film’s biggest surprise is that she proves herself equal to it. Gosheva’s fine performance suggests Nade’s growing desperation subtly; she’s not in Marion Cotillard’s class, but she might get there someday. It’s a shame The Lesson isn’t worthy of such work.