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This article was written on 17 Nov 2015, and is filled under Film & TV.

Precarity, Bulgarian Style: Grozeva & Valchanov’s “The Lesson” (“Urok”–2014)

It’s completely in keeping with her character that Nadezhde Daskalova (Margita Gosheva) responds to a wanton act of petty thievery in her middle-school English class with repugnance and moral outrage. She is a teacher’s teacher, fully aware that moral integrity and social felicity are as decisive to the instruction of adolescents as the subject matter at hand. She is a super-responsible wife and mother (her six or seven year-old daughter, Andrea, is developmentally challenged). To make ends meet as the family’s sole provider, she does piecework assignments for a translation agency in the provincial Bulgarian town near the village where she was born–and where she’s settled with her husband, Mladen (Ivan Barnev).

Even before the image comes up in this compelling, unusually coherent film, we hear the chalk squeaking from Nade’s classroom blackboard scrawl. She won’t take the rifling of even one girl’s desk lightly. She’ll make a lesson of it. Her manner in dealing with this violation of basic classroom safety and trust is sober, forthright, and methodical. She displays the envelope in which the thief can secretly rectify the wrong. The film underscores her purpose and resolve, particularly during its first half, with the pitched pace of walk, the pronounced clatter of her high heels.

She returns to a basically loving household whose mood is subdued only by the fact that its grounding marriage has lost its novelty. By common assent, Mladen is Andrea’s primary caregiver. His primary preoccupation, other than the child, is unloading, as in selling, a camper occupying a disproportionate share of the property’s horizontal footprint. The family name for the camper is “Felix.” If such a prize existed, this vehicle would be a serious contender for the “Academy Award to a Vehicle Performing as a Full-fledged Character in a Feature-length Film.” No ministrations on Mladen’s part can lift Felix from its disrepair. An attempt to foist Felix on acquaintances comes to naught. Felix is Mladen’s best friend throughout the film, the closest approximation of his double. Mladen repairs to Felix at every possible opportunity to smoke, drink, and languish. While Nade pushes on with her exemplary moral standards and pragmatic sobriety, Mladen sinks deeper into passivity.

The event that galvanizes this this residually subdued state of affairs is the appearance one day, after school, of serious repo-men on the property, ones who let it be known that Mladen has never made the mortgage payments that Nade has regularly left him. These have been diverted, rather, to increasingly desperate measures to revive Felix. The house is to be placed immanently on the auction block. Only full payment of the loan in a matter of days will forestall this eventuality. Thus begins a crisis not only of the family’s economic solvency, but also of its social connectivity and empowerment. In keeping with the film’s basic set up, it is Nade, the loyal everything, including daughter (her late mother’s photo prominently adorns the house; she drinks coffee by her mother’s grave), who must weather this storm alone. Once Nade is launched on the desperation demanding that she take out more loans in order to pay off a debt she had no idea was delinquent, of encountering accelerated deadlines at every turn, she must, on her own part, take in a number of unwelcome lessons: Every potential interpersonal source of support and relief is always already corrupt and hopelessly bankrupt; every currency by which she might enhance the family’s position is weak and scarce. It is in “The Lesson’s” escalating panorama of weak currencies and bankrupt relationships that it finds its notable distinction.

For it turns out, in quick succession, as in a Kleist or Kafka narrative, that the translation agency owing Nade the money for services rendered that would bail her out of the situation is on its own disaster course of insolvency and sellout; the sleazebag loan shark (Stefan Denolyubov) to whom she subsequently turns, at the translation manager’s suggestion, to fend foreclosure off for a week, after inducing her to falsify his nephew’s English grade, subjects her to an unrelenting barrage of misogynist aggression. In the lurid detail, he exhorts her to prostitute herself. Nade, ordinarily an orderly soul in control of her arrangements, becomes caught up in a frenetic spiral between home, school, and the regional town where the bank, the translation office, and the pawnbroker are situated.

She takes each of these hits in sober stride; the gauntlet furnishes the film with a subliminal cadence of existential despair. We see Nade taking off cross-country to make an appointment after her benzene (yet another currency in this allegory of system-wide default) runs out, leaving her stranded. After the bank threatens to foreclose if she does not come up with an additional 1.37 leva owed through miscalculation, she pleads with her uncle, a bus conductor, to lend her the fare. We are party to her peeing in a field in the midst of this accelerated back-and-forth. Every element in the narrative, even gasoline, bus fare, and what we imagine might happen to her body under the terms of the skin trade, becomes a weak currency, one that cannot restore the family to solvency and good standing. Under the conditions of a systematically impacted economy (Bulgaria is just to the north of Greece), we witness the devolution of a random family from respectability to aggravated precarity.

This is, then, a uniquely Bulgarian comedy of counterfeit currencies. Even family, one’s ultimate bulwark when unanticipated reversal strikes, turns out to be, in multiple senses, worthless. Why doesn’t Nade appeal to her apparently prosperous father?—ventures the utterly unreliable translation manager on his way out of town. But here we encounter a moral scruple or hook that may also be the royal road into Nade’s character. Not too long after his first wife’s death Tachi, the father (Ivan Savov), remarried Galya (Ivanka Bratoeva), a muddle-headed, but well-preserved fountain of New Age delusion. The headshot that we see of the departed mother, both in Nade’s and Tachi’s homes, most resembles an actress’s publicity photo. From Nade’s point of view, Tachi’s sexual mischief with her mother hardly in the grave, together with his selection of the ditzy Galya as a mate, comprise an irreparable dishonor to her female progenitor. Nade is literally hung up on this narcissistic wound to her personal integrity and her female identity. It preempts her from accepting the assistance that Tachi, for the price of a bit of perestroika and acknowledgment, would gladly provide. Herself regressing—to the sensibility of one of her students–Nade defaces the photo of Galya that in her father’s house stands alongside her mother’s portrait. When an exasperated Nade returns to this household for help, Galya, in one of the film’s most hilarious bits, laments the catastrophic imbalance to her energic meridians that this vandalism to her image has wrought.

The overall thrust of this film is what happens to a basically sound, and in many senses noble character, when she ventures into systematic conditions of closure, whether these have been catalyzed by a morose loser husband who has withdrawn many crucial forms of support; unresolved contention in her original family; an “official” economy of unscrupulous practices reserved only for the fine print (the mortgage bank in town is a financial institution of unsurpassed crassness); or a shadow economy managing (digitally) to reduce all potential currencies of bailout into one. (In this shady outskirt, cash, goods, sexual services, all amount to the same thing. And there aren’t enough of these intertwined commodities to go around, to fend off the mounting catastrophe of indebtedness on all fronts.) The Jurassic attitude toward women that Nade encounters at every turn doesn’t help either: abused in the most humiliating fashion by the loan shark’s vision of her scant thongs and permanent state of fellatio, she seeks redress with the local police. But the officer to whom she is sent turns out to be one of the debt collectors who originally barged in on her property and her stable life.

So resolute is Nade’s character, though, that back at school, her multifaceted lesson, one in math and civics as well as in language skills, edges toward completion. The cycle of learning is reciprocal. Using a ploy picked up from the loan shark, Nade gets the antisocial thief to turn himself in. At the same time, she figures out how to solve her own immediate debt-crisis. I won’t deprive readers of their viewing pleasure by filling in these details. But the feedback loop of teaching and learning, as opposed to the Bulgarian economy amid conditions of congenital weakness and European domination, is open-ended. Education, the play of teaching and learning, is the one societal near-universal that just might weather economies such as the Greek and the Bulgarian through chronic insolvency and downward economic spiral.

In conception, script, acting, and direction, this film overflows with subtlety and a delicate touch. With a few decisive, but invariably on-target strokes, Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov, who also wrote the script, impart a most welcome psychological depth to the current cinema (they also co-directed the 2008 “Family Therapy”). Nade is a vividly memorable protagonist with a fully multidimensional persona. Particularly nuanced in her characterization is the festering wound preempting her from the expedient escape-hatch from the family’s predicament. Her travails, and the sober realism that she always manages to mobilize, are indeed at home in a B/W palette. The acting, whether delivered by the central characters or such peripheral players as the translation agent’s contrite secretary, the employees at the bank where the Daskalovs have taken out their mortgage, and the bill-collectors, invariably rises in full subtlety to the film’s unexpected twists, even at their most absurd.

The headline story of our age is the predicament of the little guys and gals as they negotiate the mega-systems, increasingly obscured under interactive techno-cover, that engulf, control, and in the end, exhaust them—largely without their complicity or even their cognizance. The figure of the loan shark stands out as a particularly odious personification of the misogyny that, according to the producers and actors, also enters the mix in the distinctively Bulgarian current brand of the precarious life. The directors, actors, cinematographer, and crew go to great pains to render this overarching narrative in a distinctively Bulgarian idiom. They succeed. The local snapshot contributes to a proliferating terrestrial photo-montage. Under its purview, socioeconomic conditions are invariably attenuated by the vying between corporate and governmental interests in setting the social agenda, by the corruption and shortsighted planning in which these powerful forces collude. Despite the film stock, this is a colorful local rendition of the post-global trauma. The underlying systemic parameters become increasingly discernible with each new cine-rendition.

“The Lesson” lends rare lucidity to the ramifications of entrenched precarity, slouching toward permanence, unscrolling before our eyes. This is a parable for viewers themselves trapped in a miasma of collapsing currencies. (Available on Netflix.)

 

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