The Student, which is translated on screen as “The Disciple” (an interpretation far more fitting, although the Russian word used is also close to “Martyr”) is, if nothing else, an intensely frustrating film. Directed with the subtlety of a shotgun by Kirill Serebrennikov and shot with a formally energetic approach full of vim and vigor by Vladislav Opelyants, it is a film which actually has the force and rigor to take on the thorny subject of religious fundamentalism. But even if it is visually up to the task, The Student is hobbled by its script and hog tied by its characters.


A screed against religion, or to be more precise, the fundamental devotion to a religious text, in this case The Bible, The Student is a film with the potential for great satire and importance, grounded in the decision to show a conviction towards the text not often seen on film — scripture is quoted with a frenzied fervour, and text marking the chapter and verses fly up on the screen. The Student wants its audience to follow along and know the text which is being used as a cudgel. Yet for all its bluster and tonal consistency, the film is overwrought with its own sense of self righteousness which fails to charitably look upon theology and philosophy apart from a literal, cherry-picking approach to scripture. As such, it’s a devastating critique of the concept of sola scriptura, but while it cleaves to its own audience, who will scowl and laugh with derision at all the right moments (telegraphed without subtlety or discretion), the religiously educated audience will be left scratching their head, wondering why the film fails to include any mention of creeds, exegesis, hermeneutics, or traditions of interpretation which contradict the on screen antics of Pyotr Skvortsov mugging for the camera at every turn as Vanya, the eponymous student who is in the midst of launching a religious crusade against his family, friends, the church, and most centrally, his school.

Venya adopts the guise of an angry prophet, denouncing depravity and protesting every aspect of his education life, from the immodesty of girls’ swimsuits during gymclass to telling his mother (the often flummoxed Yuliya Aug) she will burn in hell for having a divorce. He says and does harrowing things in the name of religion which range from laughable, to discomfiting, to bloodcurdling, but The Student, which is adapted from the play written by Marius von Mayenburg, struggles under the weight of its own righteousness, all the while espousing a viewpoint which is held by a minority of the population. Venya borders on class clown antics, dressing in a gorilla suit and jumping on the desk in defiance of evolution, or stripping naked during Sex Ed class to protest against being taught how to use condoms. His scientifically minded teacher, Elena, played with an agitated exasperation by Viktoriya Isakova, is caught in the crossfire between Venya’s antics and the school administration’s unwillingness to speak out against his religious beliefs. The ineffectuality of the principal and her assistant carries far more weight than Venya’s outlandish behaviors, because they are closer to reality. Several powerfully staged long takes structured around the administration debating how to address Venya are prime examples of how to construct a long take without being beholden to the form (Serebrennikov notes that in the editing room he would just cut in the middle of a long take because he wanted the best shot – a notion which is sometimes lost on the Birdmans of cinema). While the film loosely insinuates ties between Stalin and God as tyrannical tyrants who were effective but brutal, The Student also allows a rather unsubtle subtext about Putin’s Russia to hover over the whole proceedings – most notably a portrait of Putin in the principal’s office, but it never follows through with these political threads, which is another shortcoming. It doesn’t try for anything new; these are the same arguments and hyperbolic rhetoric we’ve seen, both for and against religion, for hundreds of years, now bundled up in a dramatically inert film, which formally interesting as it is, can’t quite seem to keep up intellectually or thematically.


There are other moments where the film could have become interesting. For instance, Elena brushes up on her bible, studying it almost as feverishly as Venya, with the intent to fight fire with fire. She quotes scripture as well, slinging verses back at him in what could have been a biblical dual, but instead Venya merely seems to mentally plug his ears and shouts down her claims as the film squanders an opportunity for an actual dialectic about its subject matter, instead of hitting the same point home over and over again. The Student also has several notable sociological insights into the modern theology of fundamental Christianity, from traditional points of bigotry such as homophobia and anti-Semitism, to newer variations such as Venya’s jealously of Islamic terrorists, claiming Christians are lacking faith to have suicide bombers and martyrs. Even this is buried within this unwieldly, single-minded juggernaut of a film.

Just as single-minded as the film are its characters, who, regardless of the actors behind them, rarely reveal more than a single character trait. The Student treats them as plot points to construct its story of vitriolic spite and religiously motivated hatered. Venya’s sole friend after his conversion, a bullied boy with a limp, Grigoriy (Aleksandr Gorchilin), is defined by two traits: his limp, and his latent sexual attraction to Venya. Both are played for laughs, both by the film itself and the characters in the film, before a jarring turn to mawkish sentimentality with his murder. He’s emblematic of how The Student uses its characters rather than gives them lives of their own.

Unswerving in its aims, yet simultaneously short-sighted, The Student is an unpleasant film filled with thinly drawn, unpleasant characters and caricatures, and for all of its unwavering rigor and striking composition, never mounts a new critique of religion or fosters a story to sustain its plot. The Student is a sledgehammer, and while the first swing is satisfying, it’s nothing short of excessively exhausting after two hours.

The Student screened at the Vancouver International Film Festival and opens on April 14.

Grade: C

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