Bringing Christian fundamentalism to the playground, Kirill Serebrennikov’s The Student satirises the conservatism of Russian institutions.
Old Schoolby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Kirill Serebrennikov’s adaptation of the stage play Martyr by German playwright Marius von Mayenburg is a gripping examination of religious fanaticism, here as manifested in a Russian schoolboy.
The film starts starts as teenager Venya (Pyotr Skvortsov) refuses to strip off for his class’s swimming lessons, saying it’s against his religion. He objects to the girls wearing bikinis and lays down a fundamentalist moral law quoting passages from the Bible he brandishes (all attributed on screen). His worn-out mother, whom he despises for her divorce, doesn’t understand and expects the school to do something about it. But the school administration is weak and swayed by his arguments about modesty and instead they compromise by making the girls wear one-piece costumes. Venya’s form of religion is Old Testament, violently opposed to feminism, Judaism and homosexuality, and he despises what he calls the ‘comfortable’ institutionalised religion represented by the Orthodox priest (Nikolai Roschin) who seems to be a fixture at the school.
His only real opponent at the school is the feisty biology teacher Elena (Victoria Isakova), who teaches evolution – which Venya protests against by running amok in the classroom in a gorilla costume – and sex education – where he disrupts the class by stripping naked to condemn the use of condoms as is being demonstrated using carrots. But Elena is fighting a tide of institutional hostility, made worse by a surfacing anti-Semitism against her as Venya’s influence increases.
Venya’s warped, literal interpretations of the Bible attract a disciple, a sympathetic disabled boy Grisha (Aleksandr Gorchilin). Venya believes he can heal him, but is repelled when he hugs and kisses him, just as he refuses the advances of the prettiest girl in the class (Aleksandra Revenko), who is determined to seduce him. Ultimately, there’s the controversial building of a cross combined with the soundtrack of Slovenian industrial metal band Laibach’s ear-destroyingly disturbing God Is God.
Serebrennikov uses long takes that allow the escalating ideological debates and heated arguments to develop. The modern Russia he presents satirically is in the aftermath of communism, coming out of a period of institutional atheism. Perhaps, as Elena asserts, the revival of religion is another form of totalitarian dictatorship. Riveting stuff.
The Student is now showing at the Cannes Film Festival.