Karlovy Vary’s Crystal Globe winner is a tense thriller about an elderly Bulgarian woman who falls for a telephone scam

Blaga's Lessons

Source: Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

‘Blake’s Lessons’

Dir: Stephan Komandarev. Bulgaria/Germany. 2023. 114mins.

Phone scams are a modern scourge, with perpetrators able to target random victims anonymously and from a distance – and the impact is harrowing for those, like retired teacher Blaga (Eli Skorcheva), who are taken in. Stephan Komandarev explores the repercussions of his event in a wintry character study, driven by the slowburn tension of a thriller that also offers a chilly assessment of life for the elderly in Bulgaria. 

The director poises his film carefully

The third part of a trilogy that began with ensemble pieces Directions (2017) and Rounds (2019), Blaga’s Lessons took a trio of prizes at Karlovy Vary, including the Crystal Globe in the main competition. That success, coupled with the universal nature of its subject matter, is likely to propel it around the festival circuit and should also pique the interest of arthouse distributors.

Skorcheva was deservedly named best actress at the festival for her magnetic taut and unsmiling central performance as Blaga. Grieving for her husband and determined to bury his ashes on the 40th day after his death, in accordance with tradition, she is nevertheless a no-nonsense sort who is confident enough to correct strangers’ grammar. A formidable presence with her single private student (Rozalia Abgarian), who is preparing to pass a language test for citizenship, Blaga still proves as susceptible as many others when she receives an unexpected phone call. 

The panic-driven scam she falls victim to, captured in a long take by cinematographer Vesselin Hristov, feels unnervingly, almost sickeningly, believable, so it comes as no surprise to learn it is a genuine one employed successfully by fraudsters in Bulgaria. Komandarev and co-writer Simeon Ventsislavov underline the emotional cost as well as the financial one as the 70-year-old is stripped not just of the cash for her husband’s burial, but also her wedding ring.

As the police ask Blaga to outline what happened at a seminar to educate the wider community, Komandarev explores the shell shock of the loss, which is exacerbated by the shame that Blaga feels at having been taken in. Through Blaga’s interactions with others, including the unscrupulous grave salesman and a journalist who bluntly asks how she “could do such a stupid thing”, Komandarev paints a picture of a society that takes little account of the elderly. They are not only prey for scammers but also “market forces”.

This attitude is reinforced by video call conversations we see Blaga having with her son, who lives in the US – a remote and less than sympathetic presence. The cinematography also emphasises Blaga’s isolation, whether the camera is casting its roving eye over her empty apartment, or watching her walk up a series of seemingly endless steps at the town’s cubist monument for no apparent purpose other than the achievement of reaching the top.

If life has taught Blaga one thing, it’s that she can only depend on herself so, when post-theft attempts to scrape together enough cash to finalise the gravesite do not succeed, she finds herself with one morally dubious option left. Having made Blaga so steely and savvy, Komandarev keeps this decision in the realms of believability – but that doesn’t stop us from feeling any less concerned about how things will work out. 

The director poises his film carefully, letting it hover between the question of whether this is a case of a worm that has turned or corruption proving contagious before finally picking a side. This complexity adds to the gripping tension as we watch Blaga’s actions unfold, on her side to a degree but also disturbed by them. Lessons are being learned in a school of life where principles find themselves axed.

Production companies: Argo Film

International sales: Heretic ioanna@heretic.gr

Producers: Stephan Komandarev, Katya Trichkova

Screenplay: Simeon Ventsislavov, Stephan Komandarev

Cinematography: Vesselin Hristov

Production design: Ivelina MIneva

Editing: Nina Altaparmakova

Music: Kalina Vasileva

Main cast: Eli Skorcheva, Gerasim Georgiev, Rozalia Abgarian, Ivan Barnev, Stefan Denolyubov, Ivaylo Hristo