The Lesson is a gritty drama about a hard-working, stubbornly principled woman who is forced to re-think her own ethics when she gets into a desperate situation involving money. Released on DVD by Film Movement, the movie offers up some enthralling, thought-provoking stuff from an unlikely place - Bulgaria. Having never seen a Bulgarian film before, based on The Lesson I'd say the country has at least two good filmmakers (the team of Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov) who excel at good, meaty drama in the same vein as recent Romanian cinema like 2013's Child's Pose.
The Lesson sports an excellent lead performance by actress Margita Gosheva as Nade, the movie's bitter-pill of a protagonist. Nade struggles as an elementary school English teacher in a small Bulgarian town, supporting a drunken wastrel of a husband and a young daughter. Basically a decent person, Nade nevertheless is in a constant state of frustration over others lacking the same sense of strict morals she has - unfortunately, that proves to be her undoing as the film unfolds.
A pervading sense of dread hangs over The Lesson. The film starts with Nade presiding over her classroom, peeved over a student's stolen wallet. After making an appeal for the guilty child to give him/herself up, she delivers a stern warning that the thief will be found and severely punished. Returning home after a grueling day, Nade discovers that a government official is preparing to repossess her family's home over unpaid bills. Nade's shiftless husband eventually fesses up to using the money meant for the house to unsuccessfully repair a broken-down recreational vehicle he owns. With a mountain of debt threatening the family's modest livelihood, Nade turns to whatever outlet she can for help. After a bank rejects their loan application, Nade must appeal to her father, who upset Nade by marrying a much younger woman soon after the death of her mother. With no other options before her, Nade must eventually deal with a shady pawn shop owner with underworld connections. When Nade is unable to maintain the pawn shop owner's punishing payment schedule, the man becomes belligerent and predatory. In the meantime, back in the classroom she spitefully decides to trap one of her students by leaving her purse unattended in the room with a marked bill inside. Grozeva and Valchanov set up the character of Nade as sympathetic, yet so consumed with her own stubborn inner moral compass that it comes to bite her in the end. Indeed, the debt situation becomes so tense and desperate that Nade literally can't practice what she preaches.
Although it may be too deliberately paced and subtle for some, The Lesson succeeds with a bracing story and a finely etched, unforgettable lead character. Nade's stubbornness and absolute refusal to be likable calls to mind Olive Kitteredge's title character, and Gosheva fleshes out Nade nearly as well as Frances McDormand did with Olive. If I had a slight problem with this film, it might be that the supporting characters were left somewhat vague - for instance, we know that Nade's husband is a lazy drunk, but why didn't he bother taking some action to relieve the debt he caused? Perhaps the writing-directing team can work on a companion project that tells the husband's side of the story.
The Lesson was digitally photographed in a 1.85:1 widescreen format, preserved in a nicely mastered image on Film Movement's DVD. The filmmakers applied de-saturation filters and washed-out effects in several spots, resulting in a cool, crisp picture, although there are other scenes where the colors are warmer and more realistic. I didn't notice any issues with the mastering job such as pixelization, banding or splotchy areas of color - it looks good.
The disc contains the Bulgarian-language soundtrack in both a 5.1 Surround and a 2.0 Dolby Digital mix. Both are clean and pleasant, adding atmosphere where it is needed and unobtrusive throughout. Since this film doesn't have a score or a lot of fancy sound mixing, the dialogue and sound effects are kept natural and true to life. Optional English subtitles are the default mode on this disc.
In addition to the film's Theatrical Trailer, Film Movement has provided a bonus short film which touches on an ethical dilemma like The Lesson's - only on a much smaller scale (otherwise, the films are unrelated). Crooked Candy is a beautifully photographed 6-minute short from director Andrew Rodgers which deals with a man who passionately collects Kinder Eggs (a chocolate shell containing a small mystery toy). Interviewed in voice-over while hands are shown assembling and positioning the toys, the collector discusses the popular European toys' history and varieties, and how he's dealt with them being banned in the U.S. by using various smuggling methods.
Foreign movie lovers, seek this one out: in the suspenseful, blunt-minded Bulgarian drama The Lesson, a flinty schoolteacher's obsession with a student's petty crime elevates into a situation where her own values become dangerously corrupted. Here's a simple story with poignancy and impact - the lead character's struggles are unique to post-Communist Bulgaria, yet her moral dilemma strikes a universal chord. Recommended.