Coming from the mind of Kirill Serebrennikov is the brooding and intellectual The Student. The film examines the place of Russian orthodox Christianity within school and broader society. At a time when global agnosticism is on the rise this film asks what kind of place is left for religion and what can fill that spiritual void. It pulls punches for both parties and questions motivations through two key individuals in the film – Venya (Pyotr Skovtrsov), a freshly converted zealot, and his agnostic Jewish teacher Elena (Victoria Isakova).
As an act of teenage rebellion Venya begins to heavily study the bible, shunning and condemning all other aspects of his life – his mother, his school and peers. Even the church itself, when he accuses the school’s priest of acting upon a convenient interpretation of the bible. Those in the audience unacquainted with the bible are due to learn about the more ‘ugly’ side of the good book. In his quest for ultimate piety he invokes plenty of homophobic and misogynistic verses. Quoting verbatim from his well worn and pocketed bible he lets his teacher know females cannot teach nor have authority over a man. Underscoring the judgements the corresponding chapter and verse numbers appear on screen at these moments to highlight Venya’s dogma.
Interrupting Richard Dawkins’ wet dream of a coming of age drama, the film moves past its two dimensional scathing character expose on the bible, becoming something more complicated. Venya’s self-inflicted martyrdom and alienation brings unwanted attention and he succumbs to bodily desires, transgressing against his own puritanical beliefs. All the while he outwardly preachs and condemns others. His internal self loathing and outward morality see him become confused and act increasingly irrational, tenderly embracing his few loved ones only to spurn them just as soon.
On the flip side of Venya’s flawed fanaticism is his biology teacher Elena. Her character is the film’s voice of reason. When she teaches her class to put condoms on carrots her principal admonishes her. When Venya kicks up a stink about evolution the principal suggests also teaching creationism. Her frustration is palpable and leads to her ironically adopting the same flaws that drive Venya, ensuring she becomes an even bigger martyr. Her obsession with discrediting him leads to an unhealthy compulsion that dominates her life, spending all her free time studying the bible looking for counter arguments. She is unable to concede or compromise to religious speech and acts.
Elena represents the confused voice of the modern spiritual Russian. From a Western view point it appears as if she is being discriminated against unfairly, but this is a country with a faith embedded deeper and longer into its cultural veins than even America’s christianity. Only a few years ago did Vladimir Putin introduce mandatory religious classes to cement state and church fighting against the recent atheistic communist past to embrace the historic orthodoxy.
There are no easy answers to walk away from the film with. Instead it will leave you questioning how far the tendrils of religion should crawl into society, and will serve to galvanise viewers with already strong beliefs on the matter. On another level the film is an interesting hypothetical on scripture embodied within a teenager unable to be contextualised in a modern world. At times riveting, the film lacks certain necessary elements of drama. Far too often tension is often left frustratingly unresolved. It can make an already confusing dense film even harder to digest. The Student is a thematically rich film and beautifully shot, however isn’t the easiest watch.
The Student screens as part of the Russian Resurrection Film Festival. Melbourne screenings run from 10th – 16th November.