'Blaga's Lessons' Review: A gripping drama fueled by a magnificent lead performance

‘Blaga’s Lessons’ Review: A gripping drama fueled by a magnificent lead performance

In the opening scene of Stephan Komandarev’s heartbreaking drama, Blaga lessons, an elderly Bulgarian woman is making a deposit on a burial site for her recently deceased husband, a former police officer. She promises the slightly seedy graveyard salesman that she will give him the rest of the money shortly. Since she’s a retired teacher living on a meager pension, she’s no small purchase, especially since this particular tomb is apparently in high demand.

But before he can finalize the deal, 70-year-old Blaga (Eli Skorcheva, who delivers a magnificent turn) falls victim to a terrible phone scam. In one traumatic sequence, she receives a call from a man who tells her he is a police officer and is being targeted by a gang of thieves. He orders her to put all of her money and even her wedding ring in a plastic bag and throw it off the balcony so they can catch the criminals in action. Though she is an intelligent woman who still gives private language lessons to earn extra money, a panicked Blaga follows her instructions. It goes without saying that when she goes to the police station to recover her money, she discovers that she has been the victim of a crime.

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Blaga lessons

The bottom line

As inspiring as it is captivating.

Place: Karlovy Vary International Film Festival
Launch: Eli Skorcheva, Gerasim Georgiev, Rozalia Abgarian, Ivan Barnev, Stefan Denolyubov, Ivaylo Hristov
DirectorStephan Komandarev
Screenwriters: Simeon Ventsislavov, Stephan Komandarev

1 hour and 54 minutes

Her misery is intensified when the graveyard vendor tells her that unless she can pay the remainder of the payment quickly, she will lose the grave. “It’s a market economy, whoever pays first gets the grave,” she says with a shrug, perfectly summarizing the film’s themes of social injustice.

Blaga is further humiliated when the police ask her to tell her story at a seminar to educate people in the trickster’s techniques. She is approached by a reporter who asks, “You look so smart, how could you do such a stupid thing?” The story ends up on the front page, with Blaga’s photo and the headline “Do you have dementia?”

Desperate for money, she is denied a bank loan, only to be referred to a condescending “personal credit counselor” who turns out to be a former student she once insulted. She pawns some silverware, but it’s far from enough. And that’s when the movie gets really interesting.

Having been informed by the police that scammers hire “mules” to recover their loot by searching “job seeking” ads using phrases such as “owns a car” and “flexible hours”, Blaga posts such an ad herself, using a fake name and age. She is promptly hired by a crook who uses much of the same language as the one who robbed her, and soon finds herself clinching the ill-gotten gains from victims like her. It goes without saying that a myriad of complications ensue, some of them extremely dangerous.

Director Komandarev and his co-writer Simeon Ventsislavov have come up with an ingenious, if not necessarily very believable, frame for this film that shines a spotlight on the financial problems of elderly people neglected by society. In addition to working as a crackerjack thriller, Blaga lessons (part of a director’s trilogy, also composed of 2017’s Directions and 2019 Shifts) works beautifully as an astute character study of a judgmental and uncompromising woman, one who corrects the bad grammar of everyone she meets, discovering that she is all too capable of making mistakes herself.

The film generates suspense not only with its plot machinations but also by making us wonder about the motivations of the main character. At first, we think she is trying to get even with the people who stole from her, but later it becomes apparent that she has simply become part of the abuse system. The director displays masterful control over his material, using visual devices such as zooming in when the walls seem to close in on the protagonist.

Veteran actress Skorcheva commands the screen in the title role with the authority of the aging Simone Signoret or Ingrid Bergman. Her hauntingly memorable performance further sets this powerful drama apart.