The lessons learned in this pitch-black German-Bulgarian co-production are very grim indeed, a social-realist drama that takes an unexpectedly shocking turn at its harrowing climax. The film’s recent win at Karlovy Vary, where it took the Grand Prix in the Crystal Globe Competition, should give it a welcome boost on the arthouse circuit, but the unwary are warned that Stephan Komandarev’s latest feature packs a punch not seen since Lars von Trier or Michael Haneke in their provocative prime.
Blaga (Eli Skorcheva) is a widow, grieving after the recent death of her beloved husband Hristo, a former policeman. After saving up, she plans to buy a plot of land to bury him in, 40 days after his passing, with a custom-made double gravestone for them both. Hristo “believed in Lenin more than Jesus,” but Blaga’s desire to substitute a cross for a red star is expressly forbidden in Bulgarian law. Agreeing to pay 2,000 Bulgarian lev ($1,150), she compromises on a black one, telling the salesman that she will be back with the cash.
What happens next is tightly choreographed, mini-masterclass in tension that takes place in the confines of Blaga’s drab, brutalist apartment. The phone rings, and a man who calls himself Inspector Kolev quickly milks the old woman of her details, warning her that she has been targeted by a gang of violent thieves. While Kolev is on the landline, her mobile rings and an angry voice demands that she put all her savings in a plastic bag and drop it to the ground from her balcony or they will “cut your head off.” Kolev tells her to do as the voice says, assuring her that the criminals can only be arrested if they are caught in the act. Blaga puts everything she has into the bag, throwing in her gold wedding ring for good measure, and waits, terrified, for the police backup that Kolev insists is on its way.
Except there is no backup, and Blaga has fallen prey to a sophisticated scam that, on reflection, seems ludicrous, especially for a retired schoolteacher. Blaga feels the public humiliation and the recriminations acutely (“What normal person would have all that money at home?”), especially when she tries to raise the money she still needs for her husband’s grave. The bank won’t help, her estranged son is living in the States, and, in her early 70s, she is too old for the job market. After attending a seminar on the dangers of phone scams, Blaga learns that the culprits operate out nearby Romania, using local patsies to pick up the cash. With help from one of her students, she decides to join them, using underworld parlance to offer her services as a driver with “flexible hours.”
There’s plenty of potential for comedy in this kind of scenario — mined last year in the sometimes darkly droll Emily the Criminal — but there is not the merest whiff of it here. Like the high points of the recent Romanian New Wave, Komandarev uses genre to examine humanity: His roving camera studies Blaga as an anthropologist might, showing the little character traits that will pay off in the most extreme way imaginable.
Key to this is Skorcheva (deserved winner of Karlovy Vary’s Best Actress award) as the gnomic Blaga; it might not seem so, but she is a powder keg about to blow. You can see it in her pedantry, in the self-loathing she feels after losing her dignity along with her money, and the unspoken, existential pain of being unable to honor her late husband.
The title itself is a play on words — Blaga is coaching a Syrian refugee in her bid to become a Bulgarian citizen — but there also are lessons to be learned by the teacher, not all of them constructive. But Komandarev doesn’t judge, and this distance makes the denouement all the more intense. “I’ve lived by the rules my whole life,” she says, echoing the thoughts of many women her age, and when she starts to break them, you could be forgiven for thinking the result will be somewhat cathartic. But cathartic it is not, and Komandarev leaves us with both a bombshell and a conundrum, as we are forced to contemplate exactly who has learned what, and from whom.
Title: Blaga’s Lessons
Festival: Karlovy Vary (Crystal Globes Competition)
Director: Stephan Komandarev
Screenwriters: Simeon Ventsislavov, Stephan Komandarev
Cast: Eli Skorcheva, Gerasim Georgiev, Rozalia Abgarian, Ivan Barnev, Stefan Denolyubov, Ivaylo Hristov
Running time: 1 hr 41 min
Sales agent: Heretic Outreach
Content Source: deadline.com