It’s a clash between religious fanaticism and science, the former backed by many scriptural quotations and the latter supported by arguments of reason and evidence—but at the end of it all, it’s the beauty and vigorous intelligence from both camps which leaves the viewer thrilled by this Russian film.
Kirill Serebrennikov’s film “The Student” successfully and somewhat in a belligerent manner tackles the uncompromising position religion occupies in the heart of many in Russia—but he does so through a teenager-Venya (played by Pyotr Skvortsov) whose obsession with his new found love, Christianity, goes beyond a personal conviction to become a tool of oppression and control targeted at everything and everyone around him.
Though the dialogue indicates that Kirill Serebrennikov takes a silent side in the battle of ideas, the film unendingly pushes Venya against his liberal and atheist biology teacher-Elena (played by Victoria Isakova) while also granting Orthodox priest (played by Nikolai Roschin) a position in the test of ideas.
The film starts off with Venya’s skipping swimming lessons which sends his single mother on a rant in search for answers to Venya’s sudden detest of swimming—and thereafter for a plausible reason to give to the school to cover his disinterest.
Slowly, Venya’s religious fanatic pillars are built; that’s after the audience is made aware his objection to swimming is grounded in the fact that he finds it sinful for ‘girls’ to expose their bodies in bikinis.
Venya’s extreme religious dogmatism was not just a matter of individual idea but as it has been argued many times, the direct connection between ideas and practices meant that Venya proudly put his ideas in motion, and on many occasions succeeded in forcing his school, headed by a conservative principal (played by Svetlana Bragarnik) to tow the line of his skewed ideas.
It is scary as to how taking a religious book, in this case the Bible literally would more likely twist the mindset and dealings of a person. Venya had self-taught himself the Bible from a pocket version which he carried around and quoted the Bible in all his arguments—against homosexuality, feminism and the justification of anti-Semitism.
Venya’s ideas, though subtly supported by an institution, his school and the Orthodox priest, it did not go unchallenged—he continued to clash with his biology teacher on the need or otherwise for sex education, the position of creationism and evolution in contemporary education as well as the place of women in public discourse.
Though Elena was constantly in a battle of ideas which later even got nastier and turned into lies and an assault, she was not the only one whose class was turned into a theatre hijacked by a clown, Venya gave his history teacher a dose of his religious fanatic ideas when he took the centre stage during a class to speak on industrialization.
Armed with countless Bible quotes, Venya ‘brilliantly’ settles on a verse from the Gospel of St. John to dubiously prove why there’s no need for industrialization—hence the class discussion of it was a waste of time.
In another scene, Venya ended an evolution theory class, dressed as a monkey to chaotically jump around—while calling the theory false. And that was after he had in a nauseating manner gone naked to interrupt a sex education class as a form of a protest against it.
It’s obvious from the film that Kirill Serebrennikov has his hands on the nitty gritty of the topic; he’s well informed on the clash between religious beliefs and science, especially the chaotic propensity when the two are boxed into the classroom. He arms both sides on the battlefield with plenty thought-provoking arguments—and beautifully gifts Venya with Biblical quotes which he fills the screen with, to cement everything he faults, no matter how insane they may seem.
Later in the film, Venya’s disgust of homosexuality is poignantly captured when another student who had become his “disciple” because he deemed him a “crippled” kissed him—but that wasn’t all, the viciousness of religious fanaticism is portrayed through a plot by the two to kill their biology teacher, simply because she stood as the sole bulwark between their ideas and its complete flourishing.
Perhaps the film is a silent attack on Russian president Vladimir Putin’s bill which was passed a few years ago enforcing mandatory religious education in all state schools—but what’s undeniably clear from ‘The Student’ is that, a spurious spiritual awakening if unchecked would inevitably undermine the cherished pillars of liberalism.
The relentless collision of ideas the film depicts is thrilling—and the relevance of the key subject or each conversation cannot be missed, just as it’s Russian setting cannot for a minute be forgotten.
“The Student” was adapted from German dramatist Marius von Mayenburg’s recent play Martyr.
(Original title: “Uchenik”)
(Russia) A Hype Films production. (International sales: Wide Management, Paris.) Produced by Ilya Stewart, Diana Safarova, Yury Kozyrev. Executive producers, Murad Osmann, Cosimo Fini. Co-producers, Sergey Shtern, Svetlana Ustinova, Ilya Dzhincharadze, Katerina Komolova.
Directed, written by Kirill Serebrennikov, adapted from the play “Martyr” by Marius von Mayenburg. Camera (color, widescreen), Vladislav Opelyants; editor, Yury Karikh; music, Ilya Demutsky; production designer, Ekaterina Scheglova; costume designer, Tatiana Dolmatovskaya; sound, Boris Voyt.
Petr Skvortsov, Victoria Isakova, Julia Aug, Alexandr Gorchilin, Alexandra Revenko, Anton Vasiliev, Svetlana Bragarnik, Irina Rudnitskaya, Nikolai Roschin.