'The Student' ('Uchenik'): Cannes Review

Uchenik - H 2016
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
A big step forward on the path of righteousness.

Russian writer-director Kirill Serebrennikov makes his Cannes debut with a dark parable about religious fundamentalism.

Adapted from German dramatist Marius von Mayenburg’s recent play Martyr, The Student (Uchenik) represents a qualitative leap forward for Kirill Serebrennikov. The writer-director is best known outside Russia for his 2012 Venice competition entrant Betrayal, a glacially beautiful but markedly inscrutable drama that failed to travel far beyond the festival circuit. Offshore distributors and acquisitions people are likely to look a little more favorably on The Student, which offers both a universally relevant examination of religious zealotry and, at the same time, a damning, satirical look at modern Russia, a country whose major institutions have become increasingly dominated and cowed by medieval-minded reactionaries and bigots.  

Although it’s not quite in the same majestic league as compatriot Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan, which played in competition at Cannes two years ago, this Un Certain Regard entry still nobly flies an anti-clerical flag, while also providing a taut, combustible drama.

From the start, 47-year-old Russian Serebrennikov has not been one to shy away from controversy. His first major stage production in Moscow in the early 2000s was Vassily Sigarev’s Plasticine, in which an alienated teenage boy is gang raped, a particularly shocking subject for the conservative world of Russian theater. Since then, the prolific Serebrennikov has switched back and forth between the stage, TV and film, building up an eclectic list of productions ranging from the Presnyakov brothers’ social satire Playing the Victim (both the original theater version and the film adaptation), the deeply evocative film Yuri’s Day and boldly adapted classics by the likes of Maxim Gorky, Bertolt Brecht and Mikhail Bulgakov onstage and Anton Chekhov for film and TV (Ragin, among others).

As varied as that résumé looks, it’s possible to see recurrent themes and interests: madness, twisted sexual desire, state repression and fractured families with a special emphasis on the implosive relationship between mothers and sons. All of that comes neatly together in The Student, for which Serebrennikov takes the screenplay credit even while acknowledging its basis in von Mayenburg’s original. (Serebrennikov previously adapted the play for his theater company in Moscow, and some of the actors here performed in the original production.)   

The narrative starts out in the realm of unfussy realism and grows blacker, richer and more surreal. For reasons that remain teasingly unexplained until the end, high-school student Veniamin (Petr Skvortsov, well cast with a crazed believer’s shining eyes and low brow) has developed an addictive relationship with the Holy Scriptures, obsessively reading and re-reading the Bible, which he interprets with a fundamentalist literalness.

As if to prove that he’s not making any of this up, Serebrennikov “footnotes” every Biblical quotation Veniamin spouts with onscreen text citing (in Roman script) each quote’s book, chapter and verse. The references range across both the Old and New Testaments, but Veniamin shows a particular preference for Luke and later on, that exhaustive compendium of dos and don’ts, Leviticus. And so his holy war starts with his refusal to undress for swimming lessons. His mother (Julia Aug, a fine study in maternal exhaustion) at first wonders if he’s embarrassed about involuntary erections, and then worries he’s on drugs. But Veniamin is high on Jesus, or what the Communists called only a generation ago, the opiate of the people.

Times have indeed changed. Instead of putting the youth in psychiatric care like they would back in the good ol' days of the Soviet Union, the school authorities acquiesce to his hectoring and start changing school policy, insisting that the girls must wear one-piece swimsuits instead of bikinis, and entertaining the idea that creationism should be taught alongside the theory of evolution in biology class. Only school science teacher Elena Lvovna (Victoria Isakova, The Island) objects to this theological bullying, but in order to arm herself with logical arguments she herself starts to disappear down a rabbit hole of compulsive Biblical research and mounting hysteria and fear.

The film makes it clear Elena has every reason to be scared as Veniamin’s venom turns nastier, calling up Biblical quotes to buttress anti-Semitism and homophobia. Serebrennikov’s adaptation has beefed up the role of the local cleric, Father Vselod (Nikolai Roshin), turning him from a Catholic into an Orthodox priest seemingly on staff at the school who’s initially supportive of Venya’s embrace of religion, as long as he can control the theological interpretation. There’s no missing the critique here of how much the Orthodox Church now permeates every institution in Russia.

Lest the narrative turn into an overly didactic compare-and-contrast of ideologies, the screenplay adeptly adds drama via subplots involving Venya’s attraction to a pretty fellow (Aleksandra Revenko) and another fellow student, Grigoriy, (Aleksandr Gorchilin, who played Veniamin onstage), with a physical handicap who is attracted to Venya. Serebrennikov says in the press notes, perhaps a little disingenuously, that his preference for long takes results from laziness, in the sense that he’d prefer to rehearse the actors enough that one shot instead of several gets everything he needs. The fact that Serebrennikov recently mounted a stage adaptation of Lars Von Trier’s Dogme 95 film The Idiots would suggest the long-take strategy has more to do with aesthetics and realism rather than expediency. Either way, his cast of experienced players repay him with line-perfect readings and high-energy performances that evoke, in a good way, the stage origins of the material.

Likewise, DP Vladislav Opelyants’s lighting throws up stagey pools of illumination in some interiors, but the handheld operation dances gracefully with the performers, especially when the arguments reach fever pitch. The use of Kaliningrad on the Baltic coast as a location allows the production to make use of the bizarre broken concrete defensive fortifications on the shore, suggestive of the collapsed remains of a lost empire, which in a way they are. Ilya Demutsky’s orchestral score adds a certain Romantic-influenced tragic heft. (Serebrennikov had to abandon a biopic of Tchaikovsky because the funding bodies allegedly didn’t want him to show the subject was gay). The score forms a fine contrast with the song over the closing credits, the deliciously stupid and tautologously titled “God Is God” by Slovenian metal rockers Laibach.

For the record, the film was at one point going to be called (M)uchenik, an orthographical pun since “muchenik” means “martyr” in Russian and “uchenik” means “student” or “disciple."

Production companies: A Wide presentation of a Hype Film production
Cast: Petr Skvortsov, Aleksandr Gorchilin, Aleksandra Revenko, Victoria Isakova, Julia Aug, Svetlana Bragarnik, Anton Vasiliev, Irina Rudnitskaya
Director-screenwriter: Kirill Serebrennikov, based on a play by Marius von Mayenburg
Producers: Ilya Stewart, Diana Safarova, Yury Kozyrev
Executive producers: Murad Osmann, Cosimo Fini
Director of photography: Vladislav Opelyants
Production designer: Ekaterina Scheglova
Costume designer: Tatiana Dolmatovskaya
Editor: Yury Karikh
Music: Ilya Demutsky
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)

Not rated, 118 minutes