Desperate efforts of a teacher to keep her house

The Lesson (15A)

A cobweb on a ceiling. A dead animal on a street. A fly buzzing frantically on a Venetian blind. 

These details have nothing to do with the plot of The Lesson. They appear in it apropos nothing in particular, like many things in our lives. That’s one of the reasons I liked it so much. You don’t feel things are happening for any reason other than they are.  

The plot itself is minimalist. Nadezhda (Margita Gosheva) is a serious-minded teacher in a small Bulgarian town. She’s trying to save her house from foreclosure. Her shiftless (and usually drunken) husband has spent the money she gave him to pay the mortgage on an engine for his camper van. When she discovers this she blows a fuse – understandably. 

‘Nadia’ only has a few days to raise the unpaid money before her house is auctioned off. The bank is unsympathetic to compromise. A friend makes an offer but he has a drink problem: it’s an uncertain deal. A sleazy loan shark poses a different kind of threat. Her father is wealthy but she doesn’t respect him, nor the coarse young woman he married with undue haste after her mother died. 

Her mother hovers like a benign spirit over the film. Her picture on a wall frames the background to many scenes. Gosheva is in all of them. She gives a towering performance, wearing a look of grim determination throughout. Her frenetic efforts to rescue herself financially forms the core of the film in much the same way it did Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s almost equally good Two Days, One Night

We watch her clattering along rundown roads, tearing across scraggly fields. The film takes its time, like many European films. It sucks you into its ambience unfussedly, familiarising you with this little town almost as much as if you lived there. Most parts of it look used, worn. This is life in the raw, vividly realised.

The film becomes incongruous in Nadia’s last outrageous act, performed out of desperation. I couldn’t accept this – nor indeed the fact that a bank would haggle over pennies in an earlier scene when such large sums were at stake.

There’s a subplot about a classroom thief who’s repeatedly robbing Nadia’s purse. She spends a lot of her time trying to flush him out. When she does, finally, those firmly sealed lips have to stay that way – you’ll see why.

I urge you to see this marvellous film. It’s the debut feature of writer/director duo Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov. It’s currently showing at the Irish Film Institute. 

Nobody appears to be acting in it. It leaps out of the screen at you, locking you in a vice from the moment you hear chalk scraping across a blackboard at the beginning to the moment you hear chalk scraping across a blackboard at the end.