Darkly absurd and compelling, Russian film “The Student” disturbs us during its many fierce rhetorical scenes, which will grip your attention regardless of your opinion on religion. Here is an adolescent boy who suddenly starts to drive himself into religious extremism, and it is quite disturbing to watch his descent into fanatic behaviors, but the movie keeps holding our attention as coolly observing this unnerving progress accompanied with serious consequences.
In the beginning, it seems to be a simple problem involved with the swimming class in a high school attended by its young problematic hero. Veniamin (Pyotr Skvortsov) refuses to participate in the swimming class just because of his Christian belief, and his divorced mother is flabbergasted and exasperated by her son’s weird behavior. It seems they were not particularly religious before, but now he is inseparable from the Bible, and he frequently quotes the Bible whenever he makes his points.
While ridiculed by his schoolmates, he adamantly pushes his belief without any compromise, and that certainly causes headaches for the teachers of his school. When Elena (Viktoriya Isakova), a biology teacher who is evidently the most progressive teacher in the school, is about to give her students sex education, Veniamin promptly goes into an aggressive mode as spurting out the passages from the scripture as usual, and he even takes off all of his clothes in front of Elena and other students. When she later tries to teach evolution in her classroom, he causes another commotion while wearing a furry gorilla suit, and this scene is alternatively tense and absurd especially after the principal comes into the classroom.
Virtually standing for everything Veniamin opposes, Elena sees that something must be done for stopping his potentially dangerous crusade, but, to her frustration, the principal and other teachers in the school are not so serious about that, and they are even willing to bend to his demands. Even though he still does not participate in the swimming class, the principal has female students wear ‘more appropriate’ swimsuits instead of bikinis. At one point, the principal suggests that Elena should teach both evolution and creationism in her classroom, and you may be reminded of those recent debates on whether religious belief should be treated equally along with science in American school classrooms.
As he continues to go on his way, Veniamin naturally clashes with the priest in the school. Although it is clear that he is not very pleased about how Veniamin does not tolerate anything which does not look right in his single-minded viewpoint, the priest rather admires Veniamin’s fervent faith and does not entirely disapprove of his extremism. From that moment, you can probably see how religions can often sanction fanatics in one way or another in the name of more expansion and influence.
And he comes to find his first disciple from Grigoriy (Aleksandr Gorchilin), a cripple boy who is frequently bullied at the school. Like any lonely, alienated kid, Grigoriy does not hesitate at all when Veniamin approaches to him, and we get an amusing moment when they attempt a faith-healing on Grigoriy’s disability. As they spend more time together, it turns out that Grigoriy wants something more than faith from Veniamin, and that leads to a very unpleasant outcome later in the movie.
Meanwhile, Elena becomes more preoccupied with her conflict with Veniamin. For arguing against him, she spends a lot of time in reading and analyzing the Bible, and that accordingly affects her relationship with her boyfriend, who is incidentally one of the teachers in the school. The more she sticks to her position, the more she becomes frustrated with the absurd circumstance surrounding her, and it increasingly looks like there is nothing much she can do about that.
While the movie evidently sides with Elena, the director Kirill Serebrennikov, who adapted a German play by Marius von Mayenburg for his film, steadily maintains its detached attitude, and some of you may feel impatient because it never fully explains the origin of Veniamin’s fanaticism. Was it caused by his unhappy household environment? Or was it resulted from his fear of sexuality, as suggested by one brief scene involved with one female student?
Despite that elusiveness, the movie is intense and engaging enough to maintain the level of interest for us, and Serebrennikov and his cinematographer Vladislav Opelyants give us a good number of long-take scenes to admire. Thanks to Opelyants’ deft use of handheld camera, we usually feel like being around the characters in the film, and it surely helps that the movie is supported well by its performers. While Pyotr Skvortsov is sullenly electrifying, Viktoriya Isakova is excellent as his opponent, and Aleksandr Gorchilin and other supporting performers are also solid in their respective roles.
“The Student”, which won François Chalais Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in last year, is not a comfortable film to say the least, but this is an intelligent piece of work with some thought-provoking sides, and its subject is more relevant to us now considering how much our world has been affected by extremism during recent years. This is indeed a tough stuff, but you will not forget its dark dramatic power easily after it is over.