Award-winning Bulgarian feature The Lesson a contemporary take on Italian neorealism

THE LESSON - Still 6

In the first film history class that I took I learned the word “verisimilitude” and was introduced to, and fell in love with, Italian neorealism. Films like Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) changed how I looked at cinema. Italian neorealist films are distinguished by being shot on location among the poor, often using non-actors in situations that reflected the desperate times that followed the end of World War Two. These films about survival are intensely moving, uncomfortable, disturbing and utterly captivating.

The Lesson (Urok, Bulgaria 2014) seems to me like a contemporary take on Italian neorealism substituting post-WWII Italy with Bulgaria in the more current European economic crisis.

The Lesson, which could easily be outrageous, is relentlessly grounded in realism. Partly because it is based on a real incident but more importantly in the way writer-directors Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov have chosen to work. Set on location in a small town with locals cast in the non-lead roles the film has an authentic almost documentary feel. Everything about it feels true, ordinary and organic.

Director Kristina Grozeva

Director Kristina Grozeva

In the filmmaker’s words, “We wanted to tell the story harshly, as a part of life. We strived to be real to the extreme, to create a painfully authentic film story. We got deep into the teacher’s inner world, we tackled her inner conflicts, her fight with her own morality.”

The Lesson tells the story of Nade (Margita Gosheva), an honest, hard-working elementary school teacher whose morality is turned upside down when she has to take drastic measures to stop the foreclosure of her home.

The lead actor, Margita Gosheva, exudes a quiet desperation and never seems out of place. Her performance is both brilliant and unremarkable. The audience can’t help but identify with her.

Director Petar Valchanov

Director Petar Valchanov

The filmmakers succeeded in never letting their filmmaking get in the way of the story. There are no special effects or fancy editing. About ten minutes in I noticed the sound or rather, the lack of it. There is no music score. The hum of a fluorescent light, a nighttime cacophony of crickets or a far away intermittent chainsaw is perfectly placed to accentuate the raw emotional resonance of what is on the screen. In a scene on a road with power lines in the distance I felt like I could hear the heat coming off of the asphalt.

This film asks questions about who we are, or become, when we are under pressure. The thing about lessons is that they are not always easy to learn and this isn’t always an easy film to watch but it is entirely worth the experience.

The Lesson is the first of a planned trilogy and it seems the filmmakers will continue to make films that remind me of the Italian neorealists.

“The three stories are inspired by the living reality, but we don’t intend to tell biographical stories, we use this inspiration only as a creative start. The unifying element between the three stories is the theme of the quiet rebellion of the little person against the mercantile, soulless and cynical world we live in.” – Kristina Grozeva & Petar Valchanov

I’m looking forward to the next installment.

By Carleen Kyle

Carleen Kyle is a writer-director-producer and the President of Women in Film + Television Vancouver. She previewed The Lesson as a member of #VIWIFF2015’s programming committee.

The Lesson will screen on Friday, March 6 at 4 PM preceded by the local short Flash (directed by Marina Lazzarotto and Rory W. Tucker).

It has received several awards, including:

Watch the trailer here.

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