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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“There’s a mass belief that if you’re texting, you’re somehow not interrupting the conversation—you’re not being rude. It’s an illusion of multitasking. I started filmmaking when people didn’t expect to have a phone on set, when it would’ve been seen as unprofessional to pull out a phone. Phones have become a huge distraction, and people work much better without them. At first it causes difficulty, but it really allows them to concentrate on what they’re doing. Everybody understands. I’ve had a lot of crews thank me. With a set, we’re trying to create a bubble of alternate reality.”
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“I’ve always loved films that approach sound in an impressionistic way and that is an unusual approach for a mainstream blockbuster, but I feel it’s the right approach for this experiential film. Many of the filmmakers I’ve admired over the years have used sound in bold and adventurous ways. I don’t agree with the idea that you can only achieve clarity through dialogue. Clarity of story, clarity of emotions—I try to achieve that in a very layered way using all the different things at my disposal—picture and sound.”
~ Christopher Nolan