The Lesson fuses the quotidian of looming poverty with the obligations of a genre film that features sleazy crime lords and bleak twists of fate. The combination works astonishingly well, as the former reinvigorates the latter, imbuing it with a sense of immediacy that renders the viewer vulnerable to tropes that might otherwise play as theoretical and preachy in less confident hands. Few tussle with gangsters, but many of us wrestle with the terror that greets the search for next month’s rent, which often encourages the circling of all sorts of bureaucratic jackals, who’re understood here to be of little difference from the less hypocritically mercenary bad guys. The film’s mixture of the everyday with the extraordinary suggests the sort of quasi-thriller that Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne were after in Lorna’s Silence, but they didn’t exhibit the flair for genre meanness that writer-directors Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov display here. The Dardennes are major artists, but their humanism occasionally interferes with their instincts as dramatists. Grozeva and Valchanov, however, are that rarity: perverse humanists. They coax the audience’s guard down with their empathy, only to turn the narrative screws on their characters with surprising ferocity.
The scenario is fastidiously ironic. Nadezhda (Margita Gosheva) is a well-meaning, somewhat priggish schoolteacher who grows obsessed with uncovering a petty thief in her classroom, and it’s immediately apparent that she’s seeking justice, or closure, anywhere she can find it, as her life is characterized by a Kafkaesque level of symbolic unfairness and disappointment. Nadezhda’s husband, Mladen (Ivan Barnev), is a drunken ne’er-do-well who spends his time and her money fiddling with a van that will never run, and her father (Ivan Savov) is wealthy, but chilly and aloof, distanced from his daughter for reasons of generational resentment that were magnified by a death in the family. These issues are brought to a stark head when Mladen is revealed to have put his family disastrously in debt to their bank, which is about to foreclose on their house, sending Nadezhda on a journey of escalating humiliation that resembles the quest undertaken by the heroine of Two Days, One Night.
Grozeva and Valchanov have borrowed one of the Dardennes’ signature visual flourishes: long tracking shots—often centered on the protagonist’s head—that fashion a literal portal into a person’s mental realm. The audience feels as trapped in Nadezhda’s quagmire as she does, and her reactions, as communicated by a direct, expressive Gosheva, are universal mixtures of panic and resentment that are dashed with the rare flush of pride in occasional victory. The filmmakers’ visceral dialogue with their actor climaxes with a brilliant hair-trigger set piece that dramatizes the constant threat of disaster that hangs over people whose lives are warped by ruin, as well as institutional exploitation of such situations, which resembles a diluted form of slavery.
Nadezhda finds the money to pay the bank, but they made a mistake about the amount she owes, of course, and she finds that money, but now there’s an extra transaction fee. In the middle of this, Nadezhda’s car breaks down, and she hops the bus, and on and on. Watching this sequence, anyone who’s ever tried to pay a debt back to a bank, or a phone company, or a credit-card institution, may break out in hives of cold, enraged recognition. The Lesson captures not just the threat of losing your home or self-respect, but a more insidious facet of poorness: the relentless uncertainty as to whether another shakedown is coming, in the form of more interest and an endless, self-perpetuating cascade of “convenience fees.” The film ultimately understands poverty as a profound and often irreversible desolation of terra firma.