Review 1: Kirill Serebrennikov’s The Student
By Eva Claire Schwartz
Director Kirill Serebrennikov’s psychological film adaption, The Student, of the controversial play, The Martyr by Marius von Mayenburg, propels the audience into the all-too-realistic world of obsessive ideology and hormonal teen angst at an all time high. Serebrennikov addresses the blurred lines of the separation of church and state that Putin’s Russia claims to have in the country today.
Sparked by the passing of a law in Russia that all state schools must teach religion, The Student opens at a volume that stays relatively consistent throughout the film: yelling. A normal fight between a teenager and parent ensues before we are introduced to the Bible by Venya (Petr Skvortsov) who wants his mother (Julia Aug) to write him a note saying he doesn’t have to swim during class. His reason? It is against his religion.
His mother eventually gives in, which seems to be one of the more frustrating plot arcs (or lack of) of the feature. No matter what he does or how poorly he treats her, Venya’s mother stays defiant in her support for his son, even though he proves his lack of sanity multiple times in her presence. She is overworked, keeping 3 jobs to make up for the lack of a father figure, so she is unable to invest any real attention into the downfall of her beloved son.
Venya, for an unexplained reason, has turned dangerously obsessed with the Bible. It’s safe to say the hefty majority of his speech is comprised of verbatim scripture, using it to warn others and justify his irrationally inappropriate behavior.
Venya, who attends a state school, is indulged by the majority of the staff including the principle (Svetlana Bragarnik) and resident Orthodox priest(Nikolai Roschin). Elena, apparently the only progressive thinker at this close-minded academy, is an atheist of Jewish descent. We meet her happily in love with a fellow teacher, bright and passionate about teaching. But that quickly changes as Venyadecides her teachings directly conflict with his religious beliefs and begins speaking out defiantly against her, even plotting her demise in a moped accident. Wearing monkey suits to an evolution lecture and stripping completely during sex ed, it becomes clear that Venya has no boundaries.
With each antic, the staff of the school gets increasingly more submissive, taking Venya’s actions and trying to figure out a way to accommodate his feelings.
During his quick progression into a full-fledged God complex, Venya is befriended by Grigoriy(Aleksandr Gorchilin), a crippled classmate who has no acquaintances to speak of. This only deepens Venya’s perception of being a disciple of God’s word. He goes so far as to try and “heal” Grigoriy’s much shorter leg, laying hands on his and yelling prayers over him. Grigoriy, we come to suspect, develops feelings for the terrifying Venya. In one scene when Venya doubts his friend’s faith, Grigoriy takes off his pants and tries to kiss Venya.
Later on, our suspicions are confirmed when Grigoriy succeeds in kissing Venya. Earlier in the film, a female classmate kissed him and the audience saw a brief lapse in spiritual judgment. But here, the reaction is clear and the response is joltingly horrific.
While the entire film is stressful and haunting, the change that has clouded the protagonist’s thinking doesn’t fully escalate until the final twenty minutes. A whirlwind, the ending scenes leave the audience in shock, unable to jump up and leave immediately after the film. Walking out of the theater was a band of moviegoers in a state nothing short of shock.
It isn’t just the plot that Serebrennikovsuccessfully translates to cinema, it’s the details that he includes. The colors are relatively dark - lots of greys, hazy blues and browns - until the lead character drags an over-sized cross through the streets. This montage complete with heavy metal Christian music, feature shots where the camera is pointing directly into the sun that beams behind Venya. It’s as if his mental transformation into a deity is fully developed at this point.
Serebrennikov makes it apparent that Venya is certain he has the authority of God. During the aforementioned “healing” scenes, the director chooses to bathe the healing hands of Venya in a golden light, showing the divine gift of touch that he believes God has given him. He is merely a vessel willing to sacrifice himself for his Father at any point if called to (Serebrennikov makes sure to throw in there that Christianity does not require martyrdom). In previous classroom scene, he draws a halo around his head on a chalkboard before addressing his class and discounting the validity of the industrialization of Russia.
Each time he opens his mouth to quote scripture, Serebrennikov finds a way to write the verse in the background of the scene. Sky, walls, chalkboards, and buildings all feature a quick flash of the passage as a justification of Venya’s (and the director’s) word.
The cinematographic choices of lights and location are as haunting as the plotline - few windows, heavy patterns in the home, a dark school environment. Each element only adds to the haunting quality and is promised to haunt you for days afterwards. Serebrennikov is placing us in these environments to show the effect when church and state are not separate and the dangerous consequences that are sure to follow.
The Student (also known as The Disciple) is a high powered epic that will hold on tightly and won’t let go. Serebrennikov’s bold choices are compelling and unapologetic honest. The films goes out as it came in: yelling.
Director: Kirill Serebrennikov
Writer: Kirill Serebrennikov (based on a play by Marius von Mayenburg)
Producers: Ilya Stewart, Diana Safarova, YuryKozyrev
Cast: Petr Skvortsov, Aleksandr Gorchilin, Aleksandra Revenko, Victoria Isakova, Julia Aug, Svetlana Bragarnik, Anton Vasiliev, Irina Rudnitskaya
Run Time: 118 minutes