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 always thought that once I had lived in Chicago for a while, it would be interesting to do a portrait of the city – but to do it at a significant time. Figuring out when would be the ideal time to do that was the trick. So when this election came around, coupled with the Laquan McDonald trial, it seemed like the ideal time to do the story. Having lived in Chicagoland for thirty-five-plus years and done a number of films here, I’ve always been struck by the vibrancy of the city and its toughness. Its tenderness too. I’ve always been interested in the people at the center of all the stories. This is a different film in that regard, because we’re not following a couple of individuals over the course of the project in the way that a lot of the films I’ve done have, but I still feel like people’s voices and aspirations and hopes are at the center of this series.

It wasn’t easy. We started back in July 2018, it was actually on the Fourth of July – that was our first shoot. It’s like most documentaries in that the further you go along the more involved and obsessed you get, and you just start shooting more and more and more. We threw ourselves into this crazy year in Chicago. We got up every day and tried to figure out if we should be out shooting or not, and what it is we should shoot. We were trying to balance following this massive political story of the mayor’s race and these significant moments like the Laquan McDonald trial with taking the pulse of people in the city that we encounter along the way and getting a sense of their lives and what it means to live here. By election day, Zak Piper, our producer, had something like six cameras out in the field. You could double-check that, it might have been seven. We had this organized team effort to hit all the candidates as they were voting, if they hadn’t already voted. We hit tons of polling places, were at the Board of Elections and then were at the parties for the candidates that we had been able to follow closely. Then of course, we were trying to make sure we were at the parties of the candidates who made it to the runoff. So, yeah, it was kind of a monster.”
~ Steve James On City So Real

“I really want to see The Irishman. I’ve heard it’s big brother Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece. But I really can’t find the time. The promotion schedule is so tight, there’s no opportunity to see a three and a half-hour movie. But I really want to see it. In 2017, right before Okja’s New York premiere, I had the chance to go to Scorsese’s office, which is in the DGA building. There’s a lovely screening room there, too, with film prints that he’s collected. I talked to him for about an hour. There’s no movie he hasn’t seen, even Korean films. We talked about what he’s seen and his past work. It was a glorious day. I’ve loved his work since I was in college. Who doesn’t? Anyone involved with movies must feel the same way.”
~ Bong Joon-ho