Late teenager Venya (Pyotr Skvortsov) needs something to believe in. Both the State and its lackey the Orthodox Church have failed him. He spends much of his time either thumbing through his dog-eared pocket Bible or reading aloud from it to those around him. His lone parent mum initially thinks it’s a joke but comes to realise that her son’s rebellion is grounded in something she doesn’t really know or understand.
Most of his classmates are more interested in sex and larking about. Venya skips swimming lessons where he objects to the girls’ immodest bikinis. Later in an empty classroom he pushes away Lidia (Aleksandra Revenko) when she removes her top and throws herself at him. He spends time with bullied and disabled fellow student Grigoriy (Aleksandr Gorchilin) whose leg he promises to heal.
For the most part his school’s principal, teachers and even its Orthodox priest (who he dismisses as compromised and Mercedes-driving) can’t handle Venya. Only his biology teacher Elena Lvovka (Victoria Isakova) makes any real attempt, eventually reading the Bible for herself to see what it says. This put her on a collision course with the teenager. In her sex education lesson employing carrots and condoms the boy strips naked to protest against immorality. He later imagines her having a fatal scooter accident after disabling her brakes.
One one level, this is a frightening study of Christian fundamentalism – what makes its adherents tick, how they manipulate others and how they can be resisted, sometimes at terrible cost. While the title and its variants clearly refer to Venya, they could also apply to his acolyte Grigoriy and his nemesis Lvovka.
The Bible can be used to justify just about anything, particularly if parts are taken in isolation or their original context is ignored. Director Kirill Serebrennikov goes out of his way to cite chapter and verse via onscreen graphic visual subtitles so that you know (and on a home video platform could freeze frame and check should you so wish) that the frequent biblical quotes used here are genuine. If they weren’t, the film would be a lot less powerful, particularly to anyone religious. Perhaps the most unsettling part of all this are the dark schemes to which Venya’s beliefs drive him, a long way from the ideals which Christianity’s founder taught. Equally disquieting is Lvovka’s getting hung up on the literal biblical text when it seemingly contradicts her modern scientific world-view, rendering her powerless to combat him.
On another level altogether, the film examines misplaced ideals propelling people to power. Many of Venya’s more violent actions or intentions indicate an ascendant extremism and a desire for power over others. Hauled before the principal, he stands with a portrait of Putin behind him on the wall which suggests some similarity with the Russian president. Given the rise of various right-wing leaders internationally since the film was made, its pertinence may prove far wider than its intended Russian audience. See it.
The Student is adapted from the play ‘Martyr’ by German playwright Marius von Mayenburg. That title and the subtitled print’s title ‘The Disciple’ combine with the UK release movie title The Student to convey something of the film’s subject matter.
The Student is out in the UK on Friday, March 3rd. Watch the film trailer below: