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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“Why put it in a box? This is the number one problem I have—by the way it’s a fair question, I’m not saying that—with this kind of festival situation is that there’s always this temptation to classify the movie immediately and if you look at it—and I’ve tried to warn my fellow jurors of this—directors and movie critics are the worst people to judge movies! Directors are always thinking, “I could do that.” Critics are always saying, “This part of the movie is like the 1947 version and this part…” And it’s like, “Fuck! Just watch the movie and try and absorb it and not compare it to some other fucking movie and put it in a box!” So I think the answer’s both and maybe neither, I don’t know. That’s for you to see and criticize me for or not.”
~ James Gray

“I have long defined filmmaking and directing in particular as just a sort of long-term act of letting go,” she said. “It’s honestly just gratifying that people are sort of reapproaching or reassessing the film. I like to just remind everyone that the movie is still the same — it’s the same movie, it’s the movie we always made, and it was the movie we always wanted to make. And maybe it just came several years too early.”
~ Karyn Kusama