Director: Kirill Serebrennikov
Runtime: 119 minutes
The Student opens with a woman walking up a decrepit stairway. It’s dark inside, and our only means of navigation are the beams of light piercing through the boarded up windows. As she enters her front door, she walks into the pitch blackness of her apartment, and everything we have been educated to know about dark apartments from horror films springs into the forefront of our minds. We fear for this woman’s safety. Her name is Inga Yuzhina (Yuliya Aug), and she is the mother of a deeply depressed and distressed young man, Venya (Pyotr Skvortsov). Inga is not the only woman whose safety we fear for over the course of Kirill Serebrennikov’s tightly wound drama centring on a young man who feels unwanted by a world he goes to war with.
The film’s got a strong handle on what conversations around depression are like, and how young men respond to being unsure of the neurochemical reactions going on within them. The conversations Venya has with his mother very well could have been conversations I had with my own mother in my senior years of high schooling. Inga loves her son, but when she asks a question, she doesn’t really listen for the answer. She is almost subconsciously more concerned with her role as mother than her son’s health. Venya has been avoiding swimming practice at school. When he says “Tell them it’s against my religion,” she laughs. “You don’t have a religion,” is her reply. That was him telling you, Inga.
Inga is not a silly woman, however. During a conversation with school staff she almost humorously pleads “I am his mother—it’s normal he does not speak with me. You are a professional—make him talk to you.” She is aware of her miscommunications with her son, and there is a chilling scene later in the film where Venya is talking about his Father, referring to his chosen Heavenly Father, and Inga flies into a diatribe about Venya’s biological father, as the camera looks down from on high—almost as a god observing this human chaos. I believe that this scene can be used as a key to understanding what is really going on between the ears of many of these characters. The film’s style, in general, takes on a voyeuristic quality, and it is sometimes difficult to separate ourselves from the characters, from the director, and possibly even from a deity. We watch and we wait.
Venya has converted to Christianity, but this film—while quite interestingly using literal interpretations of orthodox Bible scriptures to highlight the inconvenience and cruelty of their logical outcomes—isn’t really about Venya’s religion. It’s about why he embraces it. I can imagine an almost inverse film being made within an Anglo-American context, where a young student’s atheism becomes their weapon of choice against an establishment. There is a scene where Venya protests evolution being taught in biology class by dressing up as a gorilla and running across the desks. When I was in high school, I once put a chair on my back and pretended that I was a turtle. It was my protest against maths… for some reason. Venya is rebelling against himself as much as anything else and he needs to find something to hold onto. The fixed interpretation of ancient doctrine is what he uses to ground himself and feel intellectually superior.
Serebrennikov seems interested in the human body. Venya’s first protest at the school is to ban the girls in swimming class from wearing bikini. Serebrennikov films them in a way that lets us know that Venya, Oleg the gym teacher (Anton Vasilev), and the girls themselves are very aware of their bodies and emerging sexualities. Especially a young woman named Lidiya (Aleksandra Revenko). Venya says that he does not want contact with impure women like her, but there are enough lingering shots of him being captivated, distracted, and displaying a normal self-conscious awareness of his own emerging sexuality that we don’t believe him. Sex scares him, and in a school where the principal gets angry at the biology teacher for teaching children how to use condoms effectively, it’s no wonder. That biology class would be more a friend to people like Venya than his religion seems to be, as there are enough indicators that Venya still lives in darkness despite his newfound purpose.
There are performances that I have not touched on. The gym teacher, Oleg, who at first seems to be a caricature of the perverted jock stereotype, is a limited man, but also an emotionally needy one. He is not without his logic though. When his girlfriend, Elena (Viktoriya Isakova), the aforementioned biology teacher, takes it upon herself to try and use logic and a loving teacher’s passion to try and help Venya, he is the first to point out that it is becoming unhealthy. Elena is the most sympathetic character in the film—she has grown into her body and wears it well—with the most healthy attitudes towards sex; her biggest weakness is either caring too much or being logical in a Russia that still has many illogical hang-ups. There is the principal she clashes with, due to their philosophical differences, though she extends patience towards Elena in her own way. And there is “the disciple” himself (Aleksandr Gorchilin), for whom the film does seem to ultimately take the other meaning to its name, who hopes to find a little more than a would-be cult leader in Venya.
Performances really anchor The Student. There is not one actor out of key here, and Skvortsov is believably compelling as the damaged but charismatic Venya. I am unsure of the actor’s age, but he looks the part, yet brings to it an awareness of how to exude that narcissism that comes with a crippling inner sadness. There are moments where he offers smiles in protest, and you can see in his eyes that he thinks he is bestowing the world a #1 hit. The character of Elena owes itself to Isakova’s performance and presence. She has one of those faces that lets you know everything is going to be alright, and when things aren’t alright for her, it’s perfectly normal to have the urge to fight with her. But she is competent and confident enough that faith is never lost in her ability to restore order to her classroom. If things don’t go her way, there’s the sense that it will be a major injustice. When she does stand up to Venya, it is a cathartic release.
I am unfamiliar with most Russian cinema. I cannot put it into the context of cultural significance and be intellectually honest with you. There is a politick behind Serebrennikov’s film, however, but I will leave it for you to experience. He has a lot to say about religion, racism, sexuality, education, depression, and even the generational inheritance we have to take up. But if I’ve made it sound too serious, there are moments that are uproariously hilarious—including a mother-to-son talk about uncontrollable erections and a scene where the old guard at the school get drunk together, but these are used as an escape from the cold world these characters are trying to navigate—nay, survive. It’s a treat that we have teachers like Elena who believe in us and see hope the divide between the old and the new; it’s just a shame we have to get them to nail their feet to the floor.
Watching this young man attempt to infiltrate an institutional system and poison it with his very being, I was reminded of James Marsh’s The King (2005). In that film, a young man named Elvis (Gael Garcia Bernal) imposes himself on the suburban life of a Baptist family living in Corpus Christi. The religious themes of that film provided a backdrop to the human tragedy of flawed individuals trying to live up to Plato’s ideal shadows on the cave wall. They provided an irony and enhanced the message beginning “the sins of the father…”. Watching The Student, I got a feeling that there are a few fathers with a lot to answer for.
NOTE: The Russian Resurrection Film Festival is a yearly event that screens Russian cinema in Australia and New Zealand. In 2016, it is running from 25 October-16 November. Check out russianresurrection.com for more details on how you can catch screenings.