In the opening scene of Stephan Komandarev’s harrowing drama, Blaga’s Lessons, an elderly Bulgarian woman is making a down payment on a burial plot for her recently deceased husband, a former police officer. She promises the somewhat sleazy cemetery salesman that she’ll get the rest of the money to him shortly. Since she’s a retired teacher living on a meager pension, it’s no small purchase, especially since this particular gravesite is apparently in hot demand.
But before she can finalize the deal, the 70-year-old Blaga (Eli Skorcheva, delivering a magnificent turn) falls victim to a terrible telephone scam. In a traumatic sequence, she receives a call from a man saying he’s a police officer and that she’s being targeted by a gang of thieves. He instructs her to place all her cash and even her wedding ring in a plastic bag and throw it off her balcony so they can catch the criminals in action. Despite being an intelligent woman who still gives private language lessons to earn extra money, a panic-stricken Blaga follows the instructions. Needless to say, when she goes to the police station to retrieve her money she discovers she’s been the victim of a crime.
The Bottom Line As thought-provoking as it is gripping.
Her misery intensifies when the cemetery salesman tells her that unless she can come up with the rest of the payment quickly, she’ll lose the gravesite. “It’s a market economy, whoever pays first gets the grave,” he shrugs, neatly encapsulating the film’s themes of societal injustice.
Blaga is further humiliated when the police ask her to tell her story at a seminar to educate people about the scammer’s techniques. She’s accosted by a reporter who asks, “You seem so intelligent, how could you do such a stupid thing?” The story winds up on the front page, with Blaga’s picture and the headline, “Has She Got Dementia?”
Desperate for money, she’s denied a bank loan, only to be referred to a condescending “personal credit consultant” 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 film gets really interesting.
Having been told by the police that the scammers hire “mules” to retrieve their loot by searching “job wanted” ads using such phrases as “owns a car” and “flexible hours,” Blaga posts such an ad herself, using a fake name and age. She’s promptly hired by a scammer who uses much of the same language as the one who robbed her, and soon finds herself retrieving the ill-gotten gains from victims like herself. Needless to say, myriad complications ensue, some of them extremely dangerous.
Director Komandarev and his co-screenwriter Simeon Ventsislavov have come up with an ingenious, if not necessarily very credible, framework for this film shining a spotlight on the financial problems of elderly people neglected by society. Besides working as a crackerjack thriller, Blaga’s Lessons (part of a trilogy by the director, also consisting of 2017’s Directions and 2019’s Rounds) functions beautifully as an astute character study of a judgmental, uncompromising woman, one who corrects the bad grammar of everyone she encounters, discovering that she’s 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 main character’s motivation. At first, we think she’s trying to get revenge on the people who ripped her off, but it later becomes apparent that she has simply become part of the system of abuse. The filmmaker displays masterful control over his material, using such visual devices as narrowing the frame when the walls seem to be closing in on the protagonist.
Veteran actress Skorcheva commands the screen in the title role with the authority of the elderly Simone Signoret or Ingrid Bergman. Her hauntingly memorable performance further distinguishes this powerful drama.