Everyone’s had that one teacher so inscrutable and unlikable that it’s impossible to imagine the life—any life—they might live outside of the classroom. How do these pitiless taskmasters occupy their off hours, the time they don’t spend reprimanding their adolescent charges? The Bulgarian drama The Lesson entertains such curiosity by cataloging the personal and economic hardships of an unpopular small-town English teacher. Shooting in the unglamorous style of the Dardenne brothers—complete with scenes of their harried heroine walking from point A to point B, the camera often trailing close behind—writer-directors Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov structure their story like a general working-class lament, engendering sympathy for a civil servant attempting to keep her head above water and her values intact. But if Nadezhda (Margita Gosheva), or “Nade,” is operating within a rigged system, it’s the filmmakers doing much of the rigging. They stack the deck so excessively against her that the movie can’t really work as naturalism. It’s akin to watching someone get their knuckles cracked by a ruler, over and over again.
Nade’s troubles begin modestly, with the discovery that one of her teenage pupils has stolen some pocket change from her purse. Unmoved by her ethical appeals, her threats of exposure, and her attempts to shame the guilty party into confession, the students watch with dead-eyed indifference as she stews in her righteous anger. They have no idea, of course, that their teacher is about to stumble into more serious money problems: Unbeknown to Nade, her alcoholic husband (Ivan Barnev) has been squandering the mortgage on repairs to his rundown camper, and they now have just three days to make back payments before the bank puts their house up for auction. Nade’s attempts to collect what she’s owed from her second job—a freelance translation gig—hit the skids when she discovers that the company is facing financial woes of its own. And getting help from her estranged, wealthy father (Ivan Savov) will require forgiving him of his slights against her deceased mother and making nice with his young, spoiled wife. Out of viable options, Nade turns finally to a shady loan shark (Stefan Denolyubov), who makes some indecent proposals as to how she might secure an extension.
As the beleaguered instructor, Gosheva—who could be Noomi Rapace’s more severe older sister—offers a credible portrait of dignity under fire, absorbing each blow to her character’s pride and keeping her composure even as things go from bad to much worse. (The scenes in the classroom, in which Nade attempts to play hardball with the brats despite a lack of leverage, are miniature gauntlets of humiliation.) But in exploring how an honest person might compromise her integrity in the face of insurmountable obstacles, The Lesson compromises its own sense of reality; the movie just keeps piling on the misfortune, pushing past believability into what feels like questionably intentional comedy. The point of no return occurs around the midway mark, when Nade sets a trap for the classroom thief, only to discover that she needs something close to the exact, insignificant amount she wasted as bait to save her house. Sympathy for brittle schoolteachers is one thing. Putting one through the ringer and calling it drama is another entirely.