Directed by: Kirill Serebrennikov
Starring: Viktoriya Isakova, Yuliya Aug, Pyotr Skvortsov
The battle for the soul of modern society rages in the latest film from Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov. After playing at Cannes last year, this dark tale of fundamentalism and an inability to confront it seeks a wider audience in a world edging closer to the precipice.
The catalyst for all the problems soon to beset an otherwise ordinary school in Kaliningrad is Veniamin (Pyotr Skvortsov), an intense young man permanently clad in black. He’s never far from his bible, and never lacking an appropriate (or perhaps that should be inappropriate) bible quotation to rail against the corruption of the world around him. He’s the student of the title, but he’s not the only one.
He’s certainly a disruption, railing against the bare flesh on display in swimming lessons, the teaching of safe sex – useless information in his view as no students are married and therefore shouldn’t be contemplating sex– and that perennial favourite, evolution. Oddly, no one seems overly concerned, with the exception of one liberal teacher, Elena (Viktoriya Isakova), who pushes back against him. Her colleagues and superiors treat it all with bored indifference, unable to see where Veniamin might lead them.
The places he’ll go are very dark indeed, though it’s a lot less sinister at the start. Then he’s little more than a crank. Over the course of two hours, the tension ratchets up in line with his escalating war against modernity. Soon he’s converting his own student, haranguing his mother, and nailing a giant cross to the wall. There’s worse to come as well.Meanwhile, as everyone else watches on, Elena becomes a student herself, learning the bible to fight his intolerant quotes. She becomes increasingly obsessed to the point those around her start to worry. That Serebrennikov, who also wrote the screenplay, feels we should all be worried about the depths fundamentalists can plunge into, especially with such incendiary material on hand, is made clear from the start. Every time Veniamin spouts offensive comments, a bible reference denoting its origin comes up in the corner of the screen. It’s a bleak and far more ominous version of the South Park scientology episode that, during the more bizarre explanations of the religion, ran text underneath to proclaim it’s what they really believe.
The creeping mood is further enhanced by an unsettling score and careful use of light. Shadows are broken by bright spots with garish colours kept from the screen. Religious imagery is switched in consecutive shots. At one stage, Veniamin offers a hand bathed in light. The next angle has the same hand as a dark shadow against the wall. It’s a story that both textually and literally plunges from light to dark.
Even if at times The Student falls over itself to labour points, relying on overly simplified imagery including Veniamin jumping about in an ape suit to protest evolution, the message still lands. Fundamentalism is a dangerous thing, as is standing by while it edges closer.