The Lesson (Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov, 2014)

Margarita Gosheva in a scene from Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov's The Lesson {Photo: FILM MOVEMENT}

Margarita Gosheva in a scene from Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov's The Lesson {Photo: FILM MOVEMENT}

The Lesson  screens at Chicago's Gene Siskel Film Center on Saturday, March 14 and Thursday March 19. For additional ticketing information, please click here

A primary school teacher offers her students the opportunity to confess to a theft. Money was stolen from her handbag. With no one willing to fess up, she offers the gift of anonymity by placing an envelope in the class after hours, in hopes that the culprit will do the right thing and return the money. None of this seems especially vital, as Nade (Margarita Gosheva) comes across as more of a drill instructor than an educator, but the reasoning behind her actions speak to her discordant social position; with an alcoholic husband and a mortgage to pay, she’s a woman who counts every cent out of necessity. Socially conscious albeit narratively dubious, Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov’s debut feature is a compact and formally efficient exercise that has the unfortunate task of being compared to a Dardenne film and ultimately pales in the shadow of the Belgium brothers.

With the news that Nade’s home will be foreclosed upon if she doesn’t pay the sizable debt that has accumulated – a result of entrusting her husband with remitting payment – she’s left to trek about her Bulgarian suburb, calling upon every favor owed. If it sounds familiar it’s because a similar, pick-yourself-up-by-the –bootstraps narrative came out last year in Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s Two Days, One Night, which involves a similar degree of door-to-door convincing. But whereas the Dardenne’s operate in narrative naturalism, The Lesson is decidedly forced in comparison. As if the initial proposition of recouping a debt isn’t hard enough, Grozeva and Valchanov devise scenarios that stack the deck against Nade so inhumanly that it would make Job grateful. Coupled with an unflatteringly dull visual palette that renders all images a dark teal, the film is an uncompromising exercise in capital M Miserablism.

One can argue that my reaction comes from a place of privilege. The unforgiving obstacles in Nade’s way do resonate, even on a personal level. But what clouds my appreciation for The Lesson, on a thematic and narrative level, is how inconceivable it is for one person to have so many miscalculations within the span of 48 hours. Can one person, one with the sort of self-motivation that Nade possesses, truly succumb to so many errors in judgment? From trusting her alcoholic husband to not clarifying the debt she owes to her surprise of “hidden” fees? If The Lesson exposes one thing, it’s that the systems in place don’t necessarily target the poverty-stricken, but the hopelessly naïve.