Director: Kirill Serebrennikov
Cast: Petr Skvortsov, Aleksandr Gorchilin, Aleksandra Revenko, Victoria Isakova, Julia Aug, Svetlana Bragarnik, Anton Vasiliev, Irina Rudnitskaya
Adapted from German dramatist Marius von Mayenburg’s recent play Martyr, The Student (Uchenik) represents a qualitative leap forward for Kirill Serebrennikov.
The writer-director is best known outside Russia for his 2012 Venice competition entrant Betrayal, a glacially beautiful but markedly inscrutable drama that failed to travel far beyond the festival circuit. Offshore distributors and acquisitions people are likely to look a little more favorably on The Student, which offers both a universally relevant examination of religious zealotry and, at the same time, a damning, satirical look at modern Russia, a country whose major institutions have become increasingly dominated and cowed by medieval-minded reactionaries and bigots.
Although it’s not quite in the same majestic league as compatriot Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan, which played in Cannes’ competition two years ago, this Un Certain Regard entry still nobly flies an anti-clerical flag, while also providing a taut, combustible drama.
From the start, 47-year-old Russian Serebrennikov has not been one to shy away from controversy. His first major stage production in Moscow in the early 2000s was Vassily Sigarev’s Plasticine, in which an alienated teenage boy is gang raped, a particularly shocking subject for the conservative world of Russian theater. Since then, the prolific Serebrennikov has switched back and forth between the stage, TV and film, building up an eclectic list of productions ranging from the Presnyakov Brothers’ social satire Playing the Victim (both the original theater version and the film adaptation), the deeply evocative film Yuri’s Day, and boldly adapted classics by the likes of Maxim Gorky, Bertolt Brecht and Mikhail Bulgakov on stage, and Anton Chekhov for film and TV (Ragin, among others).
As varied as that resume looks, it’s possible to see recurrent themes and interests: madness, twisted sexual desire, state repression, fractured families with a special emphasis on the implosive relationship between mothers and sons. All of that comes neatly together The Student, for which Serebrennikov takes the screenplay credit even while acknowledging its basis in von Mayenburg’s original. (Serebrennikov previously adapted the play for his theater company in Moscow, and some of the actors here performed in the original production.)
The narrative starts out in the realm of unfussy realism and grows blacker, richer and more surreal. For reasons that remain until the end teasingly unexplained, high-school student Veniamin (Petr Skvortsov, well cast with a crazed believer’s shining eyes and low brow) has developed an addictive relationship with the Holy Scriptures, obsessively reading and re-reading the Bible, which he interprets with a fundamentalist literalness.
As if to prove that he’s not making any of this up, Serebrennikov “footnotes” every Biblical quotation Veniamin spouts with onscreen text citing (in Roman script) each quote’s book, chapter and verse. The references range across both the Old and New Testaments, but Veniamin shows a particular preference for Luke and later on, that exhaustive compendium of dos and don’ts, Leviticus. And so his holy war starts with his refusal to undress for swimming lesson. His mother (Julia Aug, a fine study in maternal exhaustion) at first wonders if he’s embarrassed about involuntary erections, and then worries he’s on drugs. But Veniamin is high on Jesus, or what the Communists called only a generation ago, the opiate of the people.
Times have indeed changed. Instead of putting the youth in psychiatric care like they would back in the good old days of the Soviet Union, the school authorities acquiesce to his hectoring and start changing school policy, insisting that the girls must wear one-piece swimsuits instead of bikinis, and entertaining the idea that creationism should be taught alongside the theory of evolution in biology class. Only school science teacher Elena Lvovna (Victoria Isakova, The Island) objects to this theological bullying, but in order to arm herself with logical arguments she herself starts to disappear down a rabbit hole of compulsive Biblical research and mounting hysteria and fear.
The film makes it clear Elena has every reason to be scared as Veniamin’s venom turns nastier, calling up Biblical quotes to buttress anti-Semitism and homophobia. Serebrennikov’s adaptation has beefed up the role of the local cleric, Father Vselod (Nikolai Roshin), turning him from a Catholic into an Orthodox priest seemingly on staff at the school who’s initially supportive of Venya’s embrace of religion, as long as he can control the theological interpretation. There’s no missing the critique here of how much the Orthodox Church now permeates every institution in Russia.
Lest the narrative turn into an overly didactic compare-and-contrast of ideologies, the screenplay adeptly adds drama via subplots involving Venya’s attraction to a pretty fellow (Aleksandra Revenko) and another fellow student, Grigoriy, (Aleksandr Gorchilin, who played Veniamin on stage), with a physical handicap who is attracted to Venya. Serebrennikov says in the press notes, perhaps a little disingenuously, that his preference for long takes results from laziness, in the sense that he’d prefer to rehearse the actors enough that one shot instead of several gets everything he needs. The fact that Serebrennikov recently mounted a stage adaption of Lars Von Trier’s Dogme 95 film The Idiots would suggest the long-take strategy has more to do with aesthetics and realism rather than expediency. Either way, his cast of experienced players repay him with line-perfect readings and high-energy performances that evoke, in a good way, the stage origins of the material.
Likewise, DoP Vladislav Opelyants’s lighting throws up stagey pools of illumination in some interiors, but the handheld operation dances gracefully with the performers, especially when the arguments reach fever pitch. The use of Kaliningrad on the Baltic coast as a location allows the production to make use of the bizarre broken concrete defensive fortifications on the shore, suggestive of the collapsed remains of a lost empire, which in a way they are. Ilya Demutsky’s orchestral score adds a certain Romantic-influenced tragic, heft. (Serebrennikov had to abandon a biopic of Tchaikovsky because the funding bodies allegedly didn’t want him show the subject was gay). The score forms a fine contrast with the song over the closing credits, the deliciously stupid and tautologously titled “God Is God” by Slovenian metal rockers Laibach.
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Kirill Serebrennikov's study of a problem teenager's religious awakening is as aesthetically kinetic as it is intellectually rigorous.
There was a time when scores of defiant adolescents asserted intellectual independence from their parents by turning their backs on religion. In this more agnostic age, picking up the Bible can be just as startling an act of rebellion in many households. So it proves in Kirill Serebrennikov’s splendid “The Student,” a stormy, swoon-inducingly shot bout of Russian moral wrestling that hits as hard and as heavily as a nastoyka hangover. Though Serebrennikov clearly takes a side in this rhetorical battle between an aggressively Christianized high-schooler and his liberal, Jewish-born biology teacher, this is a welcome study of religious fanaticism that doesn’t discredit either party’s intelligence, and knows its oats either way: Viewers who are either unfamiliar with or estranged from the Good Book should prepare themselves for a veritable tsunami of scripture, rigorously extracted and reassembled as riveting spiritual debate.
If that sounds a tough sell, it probably is: The fevered verbal tone and vertiginous formal activity of Serebrennikov’s films gives them narrower international appeal than, say, those of his compatriot Andrey Zvyagintsev, though they’re comparable in heft and gravity. Still, there’s an of-the-moment urgency to “The Student’s” unexpected generational face-off that should draw broader arthouse interest than Serebrennikov’s 2012 Venice competition entry “Betrayal” — a heated, dazzlingly mounted romantic tragedy that sadly never caught fire beyond the festival circuit. At a time when arguments over educational “safe spaces” and belief-based “micro-aggressions” are prominent in the media, this wildly escalating classroom drama — based on a stage work by German playwright Marius von Mayenburg — serves as a frightening cautionary tale. Whether it ultimately comes down for or against unqualified free speech, however, is one of many potential topics of post-screening conversation.
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