The Student

 

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A youth claims to hold views that make him a religious extremist in this ambitious film.

 
The Student

Aleksandra Revenko (on the right), with Pyotr Skvortsov (far right)

 

This Russian film is the work of Kirill Serebrennikov who, in addition to directing, made the adaptation    from a stage play entitled Martyr which had itself proved controversial. Serebrennikov is known as much for his own stage work as for his films and chose to retain many original cast members for this screen version. He did this despite deciding to alter the emphasis by giving his treatment a contemporary setting. However, aided by a cast that proves very persuasive in this new medium, he has in The Student created a work that stands up well as cinema. What does prove troublesome, however, is the difficulty of interpreting the material. It's as fluid as the title which went from the original Martyr to The Disciple (as it appears in the translation offered by the film) to The Student (the title being used in all publicity here).

 

Paradoxically, the film's prime weakness lies in the sense that the story being told is not always as convincing as it should be because it seems to have been constructed to support a theme. In such cases the theme is usually a self-evident one, but that proves not to be the case here. The central figure, admirably played by Pyotr Skvortsov, is a troubled teenager named Venya who lives with his divorced mother (Yuliya Aug). Although she is sceptical when he talks of having religious beliefs, he is soon heard quoting endlessly from the bible. In doing so Venya expresses the views of a traditional and an extremist (he berates his  mother for being a divorcee, disapproves of female pupils wearing bikinis in the swimming pool and objects to sexual education classes that advocate the use of condoms and fail to denounce homosexuality).

 

In one sense Venya acts like a Christ figure attacking what he sees as the false values of society and of the Church and even attaining a disciple of his own in the form of the doting crippled schoolboy, Grisha (Aleksandr Gorchillin). By being presented as a tale of today, The Student seems to be portraying Venya as a youth who in a Christian context is the equivalent of those who choose to fight for ISIS because they accept a fundamentalist view of Islam that justifies killing.

 

But The Student muddies the waters by widening its scope. There's satire at the expense of such figures as the old fashioned headmistress (Svetlana Bragarnik), an emphasis on homosexual undercurrents (Grisha is gay and could it be that Venya is too but is in denial?) and a further key thread emerges when Venya's hostility to the atheist biology teacher, Elena (Viktoriya Isakova), leads to her being victimised (even anti-Semitism plays a part in this). The stance that is taken by Elena in response can itself be interpreted in more ways than one and it could be seen as justifying the view that The Student is a comment on Russian society retreating from the modern world as those in authority increasingly embrace traditional outlooks, this to the extent that more modern views on all levels are in danger of being outlawed. The range of possible interpretation might have made this an intriguing work but, when one compares it with a masterpiece like Stations of the Cross (2014) in which any ambiguity was richly rewarding, the impact is instead of a well-made film that leaves one asking too many questions as to what its main aim is.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Viktoriya Isakova, Pyotr Skvortsov, Aleksandr Gorchillin, Yuliya Aug, Svetlana Bragarnik, Irina Rudnitskaya, Aleksandra Revenko, Anton Vasiliev.

 

Dir Kirill Serebrennikov, Pro Ilya Stewart, Diana Safarova and Yuriy Kozyrev, Screenplay Kirill Serebrennikov, based on the play Martyr by Marius von Mayenburg, Ph Vladislav Opelyants, Pro Des Ekaterina Shcheglova, Ed Yuri Karikh, Music Ilya Demutsky, Costumes Tatyana Dolmatovskaya.

 

Hype Film-Matchbox.
118 mins. Russian Federation. 2016. Rel: 3 March 2017. Cert. 15.