By Jake Howell jake.howell@utoronto.ca

Cannes Review: The Student

student

On Day 3, sidebar program Un Certain Regard has again proven more interesting and daring than the Competition. It’s a list of films that already includes a fundamental powerhouse: The Student (Uchenik), by Russia’s Kirill Serebrennikov, an adaptation of Marius von Mayenburg’s darkly satiric German play “Martyr.”

Taking Christianity and cynically spinning the cross sideways—figuratively, and once, even literally—The Student is an energetic, impeccably choreographed film that follows Venya, a troubled youth whose chip on his shoulder is a communion wafer. After an overnight conversion to get out of swimming lessons, Venya (Petr Skvortsov) doubles-down on his new identity and assumes the role of high school proselyte, wielding the words of Mark and Luke to disrupt class and disrespect his teacher Elena (Victoria Isakova), an atheist having a hard time convincing her devout principal she’s the rational one.

Emphasizing fire over forgiveness, Venya’s party trick—other than brooding—is memorizing lines and lines of Biblical brimstone, citing them perfectly when sins present themselves. Those absent from Sunday School may be surprised to learn just how misanthropically they can be interpreted, and to assure us Venya’s bitter judgments are real, Serebrennikov cites with on-screen text where these quotes appear. Is prayer useless, or is it everything? Is violence condemned, or is it condoned? It’s unsure who the real sinner is once the first stone is cast.

These questions, combined with Elena’s passionate refutations as she academically researches the Bible herself, point to Christianity’s inconsistencies while simultaneously disparaging them. “I’m not making this up,” Elena says at one point. “It’s all written right there.” The Student’s theme of religious futility is explored at both ends of the belief spectrum, promoting the 47-year-old writer-director’s story to greatness.

Despite a two-hour running time, the watchable, engaging leads and masterful blocking keep the drama absorbing. Staying loyal to its inception as a stage production, Serebrennikov schools us with a lesson in momentum: transitions between scenes move seamlessly and theatrically, oftentimes without cutting. His patient direction captures minutes of dialogue in a single take; clever edits allow an empty classroom to become a full one as the camera pans away.

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“I never accepted the term contrarian. I think that’s offensive, frankly. And my response to that is: if I’m a contrarian, what are other reviewers? What I strive to do is be a good critic, not somebody who simply accepts the product put in front of me. I guess it scares people to think that they don’t have any originality; that they don’t have the capacity to think for themselves.

“There’s a line a lot of reviewers use that I don’t like at all. They say ‘accept the film on its own terms.’ What that really means is, ‘accept the film as it is advertised.’ That’s got nothing to do with criticism. Nothing to do with having a response as a film watcher. A thinking person has to analyze what’s on screen, not simply rubber-stamp it or kowtow to marketing.”m

“To me, everything does have a political component and I think it’s an interesting way to look at art. It’s one way that makes film reviewing, I think, a politically relevant form of journalism. We do live in a political world, and we bring our political sense to the movies with us – unless you’re the kind of person who goes to the movies and shuts off the outside world. I’m not that kind of person.”
~ Armond White to Luke Buckmaster

“One of comedy’s defining pathologies, alongside literal pathologies like narcissism and self-loathing, is its swaggering certainty that it is part of the political vanguard, while upholding one of the most rigidly patriarchal hierarchies of any art form.”
~ Lindy West