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‘Blaga’s Lessons’ Review: A Riveting Social Thriller From Bulgaria



In a single fell swoop, 70-year-old widow Blaga Naumova goes from being cash-strapped to cash-stripped. All her life, she’s fastidiously pinched pennies to build up a modest cushion of life financial savings that she’s nonetheless by no means been smart sufficient to place within the financial institution; a long time of scrimping quantity to naught when, in a second of terrorized insanity, she caves to the threats of a cellphone scammer and fairly actually throws her very small fortune out the window. How may you be so silly, everybody asks her, and plenty of within the viewers are prone to echo them. However Stephan Komandarev’s damning, despairing, riveting thriller “Blaga’s Lessons” sees issues one other approach: In a post-communist Bulgaria the place ladies like Blaga are legally bled dry by cowboys and corrupt establishments on all sides, how is she purported to see the distinction?

Premiering in the principle competitors at Karlovy Fluctuate, that is tense, tough-minded fare that isn’t afraid to check the bounds of realism for the sake of a great story, however nonetheless feels authentically rooted in an ailing, uncared for strand of Bulgarian society. Like a lot of Komandarev’s work, it marries a stern social conscience to a crowdpleasing aptitude for style — at the least till a bluntly provocative denouement that may divide viewers alongside “what would you do” strains.

Three a long time right into a profession break up equally between documentaries and fiction options, Komandarev has twice been submitted for the worldwide characteristic Oscar (cracking the shortlist with 2008’s “The World is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner”) and made the Cannes official choice with 2017’s “Directions,” however has by no means fairly damaged via on the worldwide arthouse circuit. “Blaga’s Lessons” feels just like the movie that would lastly change that, with a extra targeted method than composite ensemble items like “Directions” and his 2019 cop drama “Rounds.” This time, Komandarev builds a piece round a single efficiency, and an amazing one at that: Returning to movie appearing after a 30-year absence, veteran Bulgarian thesp Eli Skorcheva reveals nary a touch of rust in a demanding, never-off-screen half that feels at the least half-written by the storied planes and cracks of her outstanding face.

At 70, retired schoolteacher Blaga is basically alone on the earth, and stoically accepting of that standing. We meet her days after the loss of life of her husband, a former police officer, and it’s clear she hasn’t had many buddies or well-wishers at her concrete-block condo within the drained northern city of Shumen. Her son is a gig-economy driver within the U.S., current solely through occasional, ill-tempered FaceTime calls; he sends some cash house so as to add to her meager pension, which she additional dietary supplements by giving Bulgarian classes to immigrants searching for citizenship. However all that isn’t fairly sufficient to lock down the gravesite she needs for her husband, dangled earlier than her by a plainly manipulative cemetery salesman who accepts her hefty deposit however refuses to ensure her the plot, mountain climbing the worth up all of the whereas.

He’s a criminal, however Blaga is accustomed to crooks, which can be why she retains all her cash in money, at house: In lean strokes, Komandarev lays out the inadequacy of social care and safety for senior residents in Bulgaria. Her already precarious monetary state of affairs plunges when she falls prey to the aforementioned rip-off — a purported high-stakes police operation that performs out over one prolonged, stomach-knotting scene in Blaga’s condo, volleying her between equally aggressive, instructive calls on her landline and cellphone. There’s a ghoulish streak of comedy to this, proper up till the purpose the place she tosses the money and a sick, stricken glimmer of realization crosses her face. The cops, all too conversant in such incidents, are solely nominally sympathetic; native tabloid reporters, reveling in her misfortune, even much less so.

Desperation drives Blaga to quick-loan sharks, one among them a resentful former scholar of hers. When that doesn’t pan out, she swallows her satisfaction and rules and, utilizing info gleaned from the police, takes a job as a mule for the very scammers who obtained her — a doozy of a story leap made tautly credible by Komandarev and Simeon Ventsislavov’s methodical scripting and the anxiously decided depth of Skorcheva’s efficiency. Blaga’s lurch into crime steers the movie additional into breathless suspense territory, assisted by the subtly ticking rhythms of Nina Altaparmakova’s modifying and Vesselin Hristov’s sparsely lit, charcoal-hued lensing.

But as efficient as it’s on this entrance, “Blaga’s Lessons” by no means seems like a mere stress train: Komandarev retains audiences conscious of, and indignant at, the methods and circumstances driving this style pivot. It certainly can’t finish nicely, however Skorcheva offers Blaga sufficient icy, ruthless pragmatism beneath her quivery physique language and exhausting, creased, finally bruised expressions of fear to make us marvel if she may — and queasily root for her as she assists in ruining the lives of others till, at a sure level, the movie challenges us to maintain doing so. Regardless of the destiny of Blaga’s soul, nonetheless, at the least she is aware of the place she’ll be buried.

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