- Hans Weber
- December 4, 2023
‘Blaga’s Lessons’ KVIFF Echoes 2023 review: Karlovy Vary winner a potent social drama
A elderly woman loses everything, including her moral compass, in Blaga’s Lessons, which took the top prize Crystal Globe at this year’s Karlovy Vary International Film Festival and kicked off the KVIFF Echoes festival in Prague this week. This powerful Bulgarian social drama is a harrowing look at the isolation felt by senior citizens, and how that isolation makes them a perfect target for ruthless con artists.
Blaga’s Lessons stars Eli Skorcheva in the titular role of a 70-year-old pensioner and former teacher who gets by giving private Bulgarian lessons to a single student (Rozalia Abgarian), who represents the lone sympathetic presence in her life. Her husband has recently passed, and a harried son who works in the states can only afford her Facetime calls while driving.
In the film’s opening sequence, Blaga deals with an unscrupulous undertaker (Stefan Denolyubov) while trying to bury her husband’s remains within the 40-day window that will spare his soul. She can get her hands on a decent plot, but only if she comes up with the necessary funds, and fast: it’s a market economy, first-come first-serve, the undertaker tells her. What can he do?
Luckily, Blaga has the money, in the form of life savings kept in in her bedroom cupboard. Unluckily, she’s about to become the target of an obnoxious scammer. In the most riveting sequence of Blaga’s Lessons, a single-take that follows an increasingly anxious Skorcheva, Blaga receives a call from a police officer who tells her she’s about to become the target of a robbery. To catch the robbers, he needs her to comply with their demands.
Of course, the officer was a fake, and as Blaga is heartbreakingly informed later at the police station, she has lost everything with little chance of recovery. But police also reveal to her the inner workings of the scam she fell prey to, including how the con artists recruit couriers online to retrieve the money. And as the clock ticks on securing her husband’s grave, without other options, the seeds of an idea are planted.
While the boilerplate outline of Blaga’s Lessons might recall David Mamet’s House of Games, the presentation is classic Italian neorealism in the vein of Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. Director Stephan Komandarev is not as interested in the details of the scam itself so much as the plight of senior citizens in Bulgaria, and the abandonment by society that places them in precarious situations.
That’s also the one real drawback in Blaga’s Lessons: there’s a bit of contrivance involved in moving Blaga through the process of the scam, and it isn’t always entirely convincing. In an age when senior citizens are routinely targeted by real-world scams, the filmmakers appear* to have invented a fictional one to suit their narrative.
Still, Blaga’s Lessons is an exceptional portrayal of the isolation of senior citizens and the morally bankrupt world that preys upon them, and not only in Bulgaria. The story-driven narrative keeps the film engaging and even thrilling at times, and most viewers will be able to intimately identify with the plight felt by the lead character.
Skorcheva is unforgettable in what is essentially a one-character drama, and features in almost every scene of the film. The actress was a leading player in Bulgarian cinema in the 1980s but makes her first on-screen appearance in more than 30 years in Blaga’s Lessons, delivering an exceptional performance and earning the Best Actress award at this year’s Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the process.
Blaga’s Lessons had its lone screening at the KVIFF Echoes Festival on Monday, but you can still catch more hits from this year’s Karlovy Vary festival, including Cannes winner Anatomy of a Fall, in Prague cinemas through the rest of the week.