'The Lesson' ('Urok'): San Sebastian Review

The Lesson Film Still - H 2014
San Sebastian Film Festival

The Lesson Film Still - H 2014

Constructs a sadistically Byzantine moral wringer, but with precious little learned

Margita Gosheva stars in the debut feature from Bulgarian writing-directing duo Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov

"No good deed goes unpunished," Walter Winchell once quipped — an adage amply illustrated by aptly named, dark Bulgarian morality-tale The Lesson (Urok). Observing one ultra-conscientious schoolteacher's inexorably escalating torments at the humiliating hands of fickle fate and dire economic circumstances — not to mention a pair of exquisitely cruel screenwriters — it's yet another stark would-be parable of post-Communist Eastern Europe as socially atomized Darwinian dystopia.

Landing San Sebastian's €50,000 ($63,000) New Directors prize a couple of weeks after bowing at Toronto will, however, undoubtedly boost international festival prospects for the Greek co-production, with Margita Gosheva's impressively stoic central performance likely to attract further awards attention.

Gosheva is seldom off-camera here as thirtysomething Nadentze — "hope" in Bulgarian, Nade for short — whose slightly humorless directness is briskly conveyed by tense body language and a determined gait. An early long-lens shot shows her striding through a country lane in her small town, before spotting a piece of garbage on the ground and conscientiously popping it into the nearest trash can.

Nade's high standards yield frustration both at work, where she becomes mildly obsessed with catching the junior culprit responsible for a minor theft, and at home, where she raises her young daughter Dea, with intermittent help from her drink-befuddled husband, Mladen (Ivan Barnev). When Mladen's chronic financial irresponsibility brings the family to the brink of ruin, Nade must deploy all her considerable resourcefulness and energy to stave off catastrophe —  her increasingly limited options eventually prompting a desperate, final-reel lurch into crime.

Nade thus ends the film in a radically different place from where she began, her seemingly iron moral code yielding to the savagely intense, invisible forces pitted against her. But while each step along Nade's personal path to perdition follows logically from the one before, with moments of genuine tension, this debut screenplay from Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov can't conceal its fatal reliance on implausible coincidence and glib contrivance. What should be an organic immersion into a life conducted under the dire threat of poverty instead comes across as an elaborate irony machine, a contraption devised to compel a hapless protagonist through a nasty form of "moral maze" toward a blackly comic, predetermined conclusion.

Just about everything in Nade's life seems to conspire against her — perfidious bosses, unreliable automobiles, bureaucratic banks, her useless husband, her sleazy dad, even Dea (an unspecified issue about the kid's "health status") — over the course of a few frantic days. Calamity piles upon calamity upon calamity, to the point where some kind of crack-up is inevitable: "I'm a punctual person, but I've been dealt a bad hand," sighs Nade after enduring the latest of her Job-like afflictions. Just as Nade copes manfully with each new twist of the knife, including the prospect of losing her home over a sum that amounts to $1.25, likewise Gosheva sympathetically finds layers of complexity in a woman who doesn't exactly exude warmth.

The other characters don't get much of a look-in, with — in notable contrast to most school-themed dramas such as, say, Rok Bicek's Class Enemy — Nade's pupils an undifferentiated, essentially nameless sea of blandly unresponsive little faces. Technical credits are unobtrusively professional, The Lesson dutifully adhering to the established serious-minded directorial playbook of hand-held cameras, blue-gray palette, score-free soundtrack and, to end with, the apparently now-compulsory cut to black.

Production companies: Abraxas Film, Graal Film, Little Wing Productions
Cast: Margita Gosheva, Ivan Barnev, Ivanka Bratoeva, Ivan Savov, Deya Todorova, Stefan Denolyubov
Directors-Screenwriters: Kristina Grozeva, Petar Valchanov
Producers: Magdelena Ilieva, Konstantina Stavrianou, Kristina Grozeva, Petar Valchanov, Irini Vougioukalou
Cinematographer: Krum Rodriguez
Production designer: Vanina Galeva
Costume designer: Kristina Tomova
Editor: Petar Valchanov
Sales: Wide, Paris

No rating, 110 minutes