Sarajevo 2023 review: Blaga’s Lessons (Stephan Komandarev)

“Anchored by an astounding performance and driven by a sense of bleak honesty, Blaga’s Lessons is a fascinating psychological drama that offers the viewer unique insights into the daily life of someone who has lost everything.”

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and no one knows this better than the titular protagonist in Blaga’s Lessons (Urotcite na Blaga), a semi-retired teacher who has just lost her husband and has decided that his final resting place is going to be as luxurious as possible. This means a higher cost, but one that is not entirely out of reach since she is living comfortably; until she falls victim to a vicious scam that leaves her nearly penniless, that is. A fascinating character study written and directed by Stephan Komandarev, the film is a peculiar odyssey into a few days in the life of a woman who has been driven to the point of betraying her own personal philosophy in order to ensure a temporary kind of survival. Somehow through these feelings of tension, we find a provocative and oddly sophisticated story of desperation and resilience, albeit not in the form we necessarily have expected. One of the year’s most challenging films, Blaga’s Lessons is a harsh and callous work with a strong message but very little in the way of a satisfying conclusion, at least in terms of giving the main character a happy ending. Yet the masterful execution of some difficult ideas, coupled with a few visual and narrative details that set the foundation for the story, make this a remarkably deep film. One with a strong sense of direction and a solid understanding of the bleaker side of humanity, gradually unravelling to form something quite strange; but not any less exceptional, at least in terms of how it subverts traditions and rebuilds them along the director’s own offbeat but deeply provocative vision.

One of Komandarev’s primary intentions as a filmmaker is to reflect Bulgarian culture in a way that both honours the country and its people, as well as offering viewers meaningful insights into the more detailed aspects of the culture and its various customs. This includes the way of life, particularly in the contrast between the glory days of the past and the more challenging present conditions. His intentions manifest themselves in the extraordinarily complex but deeply unnerving character-driven drama that takes aspects of social realism and reworks them into this bleak psychological thriller, which comes as a surprise considering how the film starts as a more placid, almost pleasant and slightly upbeat story of this woman navigating the long-term effects of grief. The element of surprise is clearly something the director finds useful, as it is the basis of many of the small details that eventually grow to become the foundation of this film, with the narrative deviating away from where we expected and instead pursuing a very different set of ideas. Formed along the general guidelines of social realism, but executing them with a far thornier, more abrasive approach, Blaga’s Lessons paints a bleak and brutal portrait of the lives of people in the Balkans. It shows the challenges that come about when someone loses everything, and the psychology that comes in surrendering to the final resort, which is never a pleasant experience, but sometimes one that is entirely necessary.

In praise of Komandarev’s vision and execution of this story, Blaga’s Lessons belongs as much to him as the director as it does to Eli Skorcheva, the actor who takes on the challenge of playing the titular character. In one of the best performances of the year, the veteran of stage and screen delivers outstanding work that is both heartbreaking and chilling in equal measure. This film is essentially a two-hour showcase that would give any actor the chance to play an extraordinarily fascinating character, a woman who is doing her best to not fall apart after becoming the victim of a criminal scam, eventually realizing that her only solution to recover from this ordeal is to sacrifice whatever remains of her dignity by joining in on the very acts that initially placed her in this position. It’s a challenging role, and required an actor who could run the gamut of emotions in a way that was clear but never heavy-handed. Yet, Skorcheva achieves a precise, compelling performance, using every tool in her proverbial arsenal to deliver an astonishing, layered portrayal of a character pushed to the edge of sanity, causing her behaviour to become erratic. Skorcheva is absolutely remarkable in the film, and she manages to carry the entire story on her own. It is doubtful that we will see many better performances this year, especially one that manages to be simultaneously this harrowing and heartbreaking.  

Blaga’s Lessons is by no means a film that sets out to inspire or comfort. If anything, it is a deeply unsettling experience; a merciless drama in which we see our protagonist endure nothing but hardships, encountering unsympathetic characters that couldn’t care less about her plight, and scenarios in which she has no choice other than to just hope for some form of divine intervention or at least something close to a miracle. Inciting joy and hope in the viewer was not Komandarev’s aim, and this film is all the better for its active willingness to be disconcerting and often extremely harrowing, since it adds character and nuance to a story that could be viewed as slightly conventional without these qualities, at least at first. Cold and clinical, the film travels in a number of unexpected directions, deviating from conventions in fascinating ways that enrich this story and help elevate its unique qualities, while still maintaining a strong, consistent emotional foundation. Anchored by an astounding performance and driven by a sense of bleak honesty, Blaga’s Lessons is a fascinating psychological drama that offers the viewer unique insights into the daily life of someone who has lost everything, with the exception of her willingness to go to extreme measures to ensure her own survival. Both admirable and slightly foolish, as she soon discovers that there are always consequences to the actions performed in the most desperate of situations. Harsh but compelling, this film proves to be one of the more effective character studies of the year, and one that delves deep into its story to provide us with a disquieting but powerful exploration of desperation and the impact that it has on one’s well-being, both physical and psychological.