The Student is not a film to be enjoyed. It’s a violent swipe at contemporary Russia which will sting as much for its liberal audience as it will for its intended target.
The titular character is Venya (Pyotr Skvortsov) a teenage boy who suddenly, with no explanation, becomes a radicalised Christian. He’s taken up continually spouting passages from the bible. As he does so, each passage appears on screen in text citing (in Roman script) the book, chapter and verse in which it appears.
Disturbingly, he chooses the most violent and judgemental pronouncements. He argues with the school’s priest that saviours should be put on Earth to start fires. He claims modern day Christians are cowards and he envies other religions that inspire suicide bombers and terrorists. Among his other constant rants are that homosexuality is an abomination, and that women who divorce or wear provocative clothes will go to hell.
For the first half of the film, there’s a great deal of energy and humour, mostly from the reactions Venya elicits from his long suffering but insufferable mother Inga (Yuliya Aug), and his classmates. And we at least get a counterbalance to his views from his more progressive teacher Elena (Viktoriya Isakova) who tries to convince him that, among other things, evolution really is a thing. Although she’s an atheist, Elena begins to read up on the bible to fight fire with fire.
As the story progresses Venya begins to put his extreme views into action, which will make many audience members feel uncomfortable about the direction the film is going in. For take heed, this is a film which will challenge you and take you out of your comfort zone, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s possible though that writer/director Kirill Serebrennikov’s satirical view on the destructiveness of extremist right attitudes will be interpreted by some completely differently. In much the same way that A Clockwork Orange, Romper Stomper and Natural Born Killers became unintentional motivators for real life violent acts in their day, it’s easy to imagine The Student having the same effect.
Part of what makes The Student so shocking is that it’s fanatical anti-hero is no idiot. He knows exactly what he’s doing and can persuasively argue his point to anyone who opposes him.
So while the film isn’t one that is easy to ‘enjoy’, it can be appreciated for its message which presumably Serebrennikov had to convey in indirect terms. Three years ago Vladimir Putin introduced mandatory religious education in all state schools, in direct conflict with the official separation of church and state. It was a big departure from the days of communist Russia when atheism was enforced.
Considering this context, the repellant Venya can be seen as, if not an analogy of Putin, then a product of his policies. And the willingness the school’s authorities display to bend to Venya’s demands indicates that Russian state schools don’t know how to deal with the transition to religious education.
Another thing for LGBTI audiences in particular to remember, should they be inclined to interpret the unsettling things that happen on screen literally, is that Serebrennikov tried to make a film about Tchaikovsky, but couldn’t get financial backing in Russia because he wanted to be open about the composer’s homosexuality.
The Student won the François Chalais Prize at Cannes this year, a prize created to reward films dedicated to the values of life affirmation and journalism. It’s an award previously won by the likes of Son of Saul and The Motorcycle Diaries, so clearly people are drawing a positive message from the film.
As a tech package The Student is very well made indeed. Vladislav Opelyants’ camerawork is impressively fluid, if somewhat dizzying at times. Ilya Demutsky’s orchestral score has a stately gusto which is rudely interrupted twice by thrash metal outfit Laibach screaming God is God in Slovenian during two particularly disturbing moments.
The Student is currently screening at the Russian Resurrection Film Festival
Richard Leathem @dickiegee