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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“Dude, I don’t like the way you talk, bro. How can you tell me that it’s going to be hard? Do you see a lot of people like you writing stories? Give me a break, bro. That’s your strength, that you’re not like us. Go out there and tell your stories. Don’t go out there and try to be like Quentin or me or anybody else. We need you. Tell me what makes you angry, why you’re arrogant, or fearful, whatever it is. Don’t hide anything. Be honest. What is that thing that bothers you and makes you distinct? Everyone’s looking for you. A Mexican point-of-view to tell a story right now? I’m telling you, everybody wants that right now. I desperately need you to tell your story in your way. You are essential.”
~ M. Night Shyamalan

“My films are always brought to life from an idea, a coincidence, or a dreamlike magic. An ephemeral moment that settles in my mind and starts to bloom. The plot slowly appears before my eyes, and there’s nothing left but to write it. I actually do use a mood board. And location scouting is essential to the realization of the film. I’m inspired by architecture — the beauty of certain neighborhoods, the mystery in odd buildings, or streets that suggest psychoanalytic theories. I only choose my actors after I write the script.”
~ Dario Argento