The Student

***1/2

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

The Student
"Kirill Serebrennikov takes a fearless approach to filmmaking, unafraid of blending intellectual ideas with realistic settings."

Kirill Serebrennikov takes a fearless approach to filmmaking, unafraid of blending intellectual ideas with realistic settings. Perhaps best known on the festival circuit for his 2012 interrogation of infidelity and obsession, Betrayal, his latest film – based on the play Martyr by Marius von Mayenburg – also focuses on a type of fanaticism, this time religious zealotry. The title, in fact, when translated on screen reads as The Disciple, which is more in tune with the tone of the film.

Teenager Veniamin (Pyotr Skvortsov) has a dark, chiselled look that could make him the school heartthrob but he’s less interested in the come-ons from fellow student Lidya (Aleksandra Revenko) than his newly discovered love of God.

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Where his sudden radicalisation has come from is left for us to decide, although the screenplay, which comes steeped in satire, suggests that his worn-out mother (Yuliya Aug) – “I work three jobs” – broken home and emotional repression certainly haven’t helped. There’s also a lingering suspicion that he may not believe any of this at all but simply be using religion as a means to get one over his mother and adult authority in general. Stripping back the fabulously oppressive wallpaper of his bedroom and turfing out all but a mattress, Veniamin arms himself with chunks of Bible quotes and begins to wage a crusade at school, in particular against his biology teacher Elena (Viktoriya Isakova), who seems to be the only one uncowed by his outbursts - in a further satirical twist she is seen to become almost as obsessed with the Bible as he is, albeit for different reasons.

At the same time, he attracts the adoration of fellow student Grigoriy (Aleksandr Gorchilin), whose interests in Veniamin may be considerably more physical than spiritual. Serebrennikov offers a scathing assessment of modern Russia society, as despite his sociopathic tendencies, the powers that be in the school show their latent conservatism and religious beliefs by consistently siding with him over Elena. While, we in the West might like to think this is just a pot-shot at Putin and Orthodoxy, Serebrennikov’s argument about the baby steps to totalitarianism is much more universal than that, such as the headmistress’s suggestion that Elena’s belief that Veniamin is anti-Semitic stems not from the boy but from her own sense of victimhood. The end credit music by avant-garde metal heads Labaich insisting “God is God” may also see UK viewers’ thoughts turn to “Brexit means Brexit”.

The drama is kinetically transferred from stage to screen by the use of long takes, while splashes of light that mimic religious iconography or a crudely drawn chalk halo serve to remind even the most agnostic how instantly recognisable and deep-rooted this symbolism is. The scoring from Ilya Demutskiy helps to heighten the mood, although the constant on-screen indications of which Bible chapter and verse Veniamin is spouting at any one time are a distraction – something perhaps even the director himself realises, as they are not translated by the subtitles. Serebrennikov’s fierceness, however, pushes some ideas almost to breaking point and Grigoriy is more of a cypher than a character, which lessens the impact of one of the film’s narrative arcs. But if the sermon is a bit too long, the parable at its heart packs a punch.

Reviewed on: 02 Mar 2017
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A teenager becomes a religious zealot and mounts a campaign against his biology teacher.

Director: Kirill Serebrennikov

Writer: Kirill Serebrennikov, based on the play by Marius von Mayenburg

Starring: Yuliya Aug, Viktoriya Isakova, Pyotr Skvortsov, Aleksandr Gorchilin, Aleksandra Revenko

Year: 2016

Runtime: 118 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Russia


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