Exceeded Expectations

in 19th Sofia International Film Festival

by Lyudmila Dyakova

I have followed for years the International Sofia Film Festival competitions and I could say that the selection of the 19th edition was at a very high level. The artistic values, maturity and original approach in the majority of the films exceeded by far the expectations for first or second film. Even more respectful was the explicit way the young authors stood up for their positions presenting the subject of their films, whether it was be the war with its unbearable concreteness or sinister existentiality “Borderless” (Iran), “No One’s Child” (Serbia-Croatia), or the xenophobic outrages, lack of tolerance and violent aggression in “We are Young, We are Strong” (Germany), or the social and moral decay in society showing desperation of ordinary people, crushed by circumstance in “Line of Credit” (Georgia-France-Japan), “The Lesson” (Bulgaria-Greece), and “Hilda” (Mexico). In that context the most artistically elaborated and emotionally striking was the Bulgarian picture “The Lesson”, which took out the Grand Prix, the FIPRESCI Award and two more prizes at the 19 ISSF.

The subject of the film is based on a true story that blew up the Bulgarian media – a teacher commits a bank robbery in a small town. But the writers/directors Christina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov use this only as a starting point to tell, without any manipulation, the story of a respectable young woman with strong concepts of morality and honor. As a teacher who requires her pupils be honest, she is firm in her decision to denounce the child who steals money from his classmates. But the paradox is that soon unexpected circumstances put her in a similar situation. Due to a delayed payment on her mortgage the bank will take away her house. Therefore she undertakes all kinds of actions and challenges to save her home, leading her finally to a desperate act – robbery of the local bank. Dramatic, comic and absurdist elements are masterfully combined. The end remains open – the police did not come, there is no punishment, whereas the young woman is totally devastated. Thus, after the final chapter of the story the spectator feels not only empathy for the heroine’s fate but is compelled to reflect upon his own life and values and is put in front of a serious moral dilemma. As everybody could get into the same situation…

The film also deeply impresses with its minimalist expressiveness and concise language, in contrast with the emotional narrative the visual style which remains cool. Margarita Gosheva as the teacher is extremely concentrated on achieving a total transformation from a reticent, ascetic woman, seemingly impassive and pedantic but who is in fact fragile and vulnerable, unsuspecting as to how strong she could be in her despair. Krum Rodriguez’s camera follows her in a distant reportage style, without playing with details. The whole director’s approach – rhythm, cutting, score – looks for a tough documentary vision and this makes the film compact and authentic. Logically it could be aligned with the neorealist aesthetic and surely has a strong inspiration from the Dardenne Brothers. But its filmakers have also been influenced by some good examples from the Bulgarian cinema of the 1970s – the social and deeply psychological dramas of director Liudmil Kirkov.

“The Lesson” remains a valuable and moving piece of art, vigorously announcing the artistic capacities and human maturity of its filmmakers.

Edited by Tara Judah