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An aimless, nameless young philosophy student living in the Kazakh capital of Almaty murders a local shopkeeper in this muted update of Dostoevsky’s much-filmed literary classic Crime and Punishment. An early entry in the Un Certain Regard sidebar at Cannes, Student will interest literature buffs, post-Soviet cinephiles and curious armchair tourists keen to compare a genuine snapshot of contemporary Kazakhstan with the slanderous comic caricature in Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat. But it is difficult to envision such a drab and underpowered exercise in Eastern Bloc retro-realism having much commercial appeal beyond the festival circuit.
Part of Kazakhstan’s cinematic new wave that emerged at the end of the Soviet era, director Darezhan Omirbaev is now a mathematics professor and lecturer at the Kazakh Academy of the Arts. He even chose some of this film’s non-professional cast, including the blank-faced young star Nurlan Baitasov, from among his own students. Shot on location in Almaty’s shabby suburbs, Student interweaves a truncated but broadly faithful approximation of Dostoevsky’s sprawling plot with heavy-handed observations about the baleful impact of capitalism on post-Communist Kazakhstan – apparently a hotspot of rampant corruption, deepening inequality and new-money gangsters getting away with crime but no punishment.
This is a valid way to update the novel, which was itself a topical commentary on the tidal wave of nihilism and radicalism that would soon engulf pre-Revolutionary Russia. Unfortunately, Omirbaev fails to invest either the murder plot or its political subtext with much suspense or conviction. Instead, his nameless anti-hero appears virtually catatonic, in sharp contrast to Dostoevsky’s manic and perpetually self-questioning Raskolnikov.
Some of the novel’s most compelling characters, notably the wily police detective Porfiry Petrovich, are absent altogether.
Of course, Omirbaev has full artistic license to rework his literary source material however he sees fit. His dream sequences are certainly striking, especially one involving a donkey pulling a Range Rover, which pays neat homage to both Dostoevsky and Bresson. Unfortunately, his more conventional dramatic scenes mostly feel flat and banal. By showing us the ill-judged actions of a depressed slacker rather than the tormented confessions of a dangerous mind, Student succeeds only in sucking all the life out of a classic plot.
Venue: Cannes Fill Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Director: Darezhan Omirbaev
Cast: Nurlan Baitasov, Maya Serikbayeva, Edige Bolysbayev, Bakhytzhan Turdaliyeva
Sales company: Kazakhfilm
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