Blaga’s Lessons (2023) ‘Sarajevo Film Festival’ Movie Review: In Stephan Komandarev’s directorial, the 70-year-old protagonist, Blaga, has just recently lost her husband, who worked as a cop. Blaga is trying to book a plot for his grave in her Bulgarian town of Shumen. A deal has been made. But one day, Blaga receives a call from someone claiming to be a police officer, informing her a phone scammer has hacked all her details. The officer insists the police are orchestrating an operation where they will nab the culprit red-handed, so she must take out all her money in the house, stash it into a bag and drop it from her balcony.

Komandarev immaculately stages the tightly building tension in this scene, accelerating the sheer fear and panic of the moment. The day after, Blaga goes to the police station only to find out she has been duped. Blaga had sold a property, too, and all her accumulated savings, which she kept in her flat, are now gone. Blaga is aghast; where and how will she procure the money for her husband’s grave?

Her husband’s pension is meager. She also takes Bulgarian private tuition classes, although of one Syrian woman, to find some more money. Blaga is left straggling without any means by which she can raise the money for the grave. Her age alienates all prospective jobs. She feels the scrutiny upon her. There is the brunt of severe judgment and mockery when a newspaper article flags her foolishness. How could she have been so foolish, so unsuspecting?

When Blaga remarks at one point that she lived her entire life pretty much by the rules, it contains suggestions of inevitable moral straying, colored by the damaging effects of her staunch honesty. Blaga also faces a time crunch. The plot for the grave lands more influential contenders, and the authorities promise to secure it for her for only a brief while. This results in a quandary.

Blaga has no one she can ask to bail her out. Her son is in the States, struggling to make a livelihood. She is hard-pressed until she decides she will engage herself as a ‘mule,’ an agent who handles deliveries for the phone scammers. With the help of her student, she sets up an account impersonating a younger woman and tentatively plunges into the business.

Blaga’s Lessons (2023) 'Sarajevo Film Festival' Movie Review
A still from Blaga’s Lessons (2023)

From this point, Komandarev mounts a game of testing our sympathies for Blaga. She is not instantly committed but does not actively shut out playing along with the scammers. Blaga does not have many friends in her town, stubbornly reluctant to let people comfort her. She almost views the concern for her after the newspaper article comes out as a show of condescension.

We get the impression that she might have built her whole life around her husband, and with him gone, she cannot quite warm up to any other support system. As Blaga goes from task to task, there are moments of guilt and moral doubt. An eerie scene at night comes out of the blue. Blaga is driven by her need to facilitate the monetary arrangements as soon as she can, which implicitly calms her conscience.

Nina Altaparmakova’s editing consistently keeps the proceedings taut and tense. Blaga’s actions become a litmus test, provoking us to reconsider our moral positions. Komandarev paints a grim portrait of Bulgaria’s broken market economy, its lack of social support for old citizens. It is tough and hostile and leaves no options. Even the bank turns down Blaga’s loan request, directing her to a credit consultant who used to be her student and reminding her how she had dismissed him as someone who would not make it in life.

Most of the film works because of the formidable, unsentimental performance from Eli Skorcheva, which had fetched her the best actress trophy at Karlovy Vary. Skorcheva turns in a fascinating, ambiguous act that gradually layers her character’s steady moral corrosion; her Blaga does not reveal much. She is guarded, and even her sense of moral scruples does not lend to easy interpretations thanks to Skorcheva’s finely judged performance.

As Blaga shifts from being a conscientious person of unbending principles to being yet another cog and abettor in the ecosystem of abuse, the actress remains persuasive through every beat. She anchors an incredibly unnerving, twisted finale that also marks Komandarev’s staggering artistic courage in pushing his viewers’ sense of empathy to the very tether.

Blaga’s Lessons screened at the Sarajevo Film Festival 2023.

Blaga’s Lessons (2023) Movie Links: IMDb
Blaga’s Lessons (2023) movie Cast: Gerasim Georgiev, Rozalia Abgarian, Ivan Barnev
Blaga’s Lessons (2023) Movie Genre: Drama, Runtime: 1h 54m

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