Blaga’s Lesson (Stephan Komandarev, 2023): Bulgaria, Germany

Reviewed by Sven Schubert. Viewed at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival 2024.

Gordon Gecko emphatically proclaimed that “Greed is good!”. Blaga’s Lesson begs to differ. Set in contemporary, bleak post-communist Bulgaria, the film illustrates how the “market economy” can ruin people both financially, physically and emotionally.

Blaga (Eli Skorcheva) is a 70-year-old retired language teacher and a new widow. She lives a modest life, scraping by on her small government pension. To bring in some extra money, she gives Bulgarian language lessons to a young and optimistic war refugee (Rozalia Abgarian) who aspires to pass the Bulgarian citizenship test.

Blaga becomes victim to a phone scam which robs her of her life savings. She quickly realizes that there is no way she can recover the money she lost. Not only does she become the shame of the town, she is about to lose her husband’s graveyard plot. No bank is willing to lend her money due to her age. Pawning her few valuables and a small loan from a loan shark does not help to solve her increasing problems. In her desperation and despite her strict moral values, she turns to the very criminals who scammed her and becomes one of their money couriers. Despite her noble intentions, Blaga soon faces the fact that the route of a criminal only offers short-lived reprieve from her problems.

The film paints a grim picture of post-communist Bulgaria. With senior citizens being the targets of the phone scams, the country seems to lack any compassion for them as Blaga navigates to find some money to solve her predicament. Everybody just seems to care about making money at all cost. Compassion and empathy appear to be absent because the “market economy” so demands.

The camera spends a lot of time with close-ups of Blaga’s face, allowing us to almost physically feel Blaga’s despair. When we do not see Blaga’s face, the monochromatic and spartan cinematography (Vesselin Hristov) shows us Blaga walking the grey city streets. Her repeated and seemingly endless ascent up the 1300 stairs to a gigantic monument towering over the city, celebrating Bulgaria’s foundation, serves as a metaphor for Blaga’s troubled life. She cannot be part of Bulgaria’s glory and the monument’s apparent inaccessibility, devoid of any people, suggests that this is not just Blaga’s fate but instead the current state of Bulgaria’s society. When Blaga begs for an extension to avoid the foreclosure of her husband’s graveyard plot, the owner explains to her that at least she “now knows how a market economy works”. This a cynical lesson Blaga happily would not have learned.

Eli Skorcheva has a compelling presence as Blaga. Although she only speaks little in the movie, her face conveys a depth of emotional turmoil and desperation which only great actors and actress can convey. Even the style of her tireless walking dovetails the emotional state of Blaga’s character. Firm and determined throughout most of the film despite all adversity, showing her determination to solve her problems, her walk is reduced to a form of sleepwalking in the climactic, dramatic final scene of the film.

Blaga’s Lesson was selected as Bulgaria’s submission for Best International Film the Academy Awards. It was part of the official selection the 39th Santa Barbara International Film Festival after having won best picture at multiple film festivals. The outstanding quality of the film makes it a serious contender for the Academy Awards.

About this entry