The Student, a tiresome proclamation of Russia’s growing fears of religious fundamentalism, feels about as cynically detached as these kinds of films are expected to be. It tells the story of a teen who turns into a Christian ultraist, altering his school’s tolerant infrastructure into a system of religious totalitarianism. There’s no questioning the film’s swelling and passionate contempt for organized religion but, relying principally on dehumanizing satire and ideological cherry-picking, The Student is less a story of personal expression than a petty streak of intellectual mudslinging.
Veniamin, a young man with a face that looms with a brooding detachment, goes to high school one day with a Bible in his hand and avouches the institution’s lack of religious influence. Reading the good book at poolside he tries (and fails) to ignore a line of girls walking past him in colorful two-pieces. Either disturbed or aroused, he scolds one of them for their immodesty disrupting his Bible study. He reads scripture to her, “Samaria shall become desolate; for she hath rebelled against her God”, the misogynistic overtones not lost. Ultimately The Student is not religious criticism but director Kirill Serebrennikov’s religious hatred for religion. Veniamin, the teen with a Stalin complex, barely resembles a distinguishable character (let alone an actual person), his drives and motives present more ideas than human characteristics. His ‘force of nature’ persona becomes a representation of collective dismay, how religious belief mutates into religious supremacy.
The intended foolproof self-superiority of The Student (much in the tradition of religious fundamentalism) is nonnegotiable to the point of intellectual arrogance. The film proceed’s with Veniamin’s attempts to dispel his progressive teacher’s classroom lectures (the teacher, Elena, is played by Viktoriya Isakova, the most human presence in the story). Veniamin first does this by dressing and acting like an ape (his big statement against evolutionary science). In protest against safe-sex, which in the classroom is fiercely encouraged over abstinence, Veniamin disrobes in stark-naked protest. None of these bits are too awful, however, but at some point the film takes a more tasteless turn when Veniamin—unable to present any real debate—begins to slander the teacher in an attempt to discredit her. The moral point is obvious, but it’s a point which is oversimplified to the point of being morally regressive.
For the most part The Student showcases an agreeable sense of formal control—its director, Kirill Serebrennikov, is an energetic (if somewhat superficial) auteurist. But philosophically and politically, he retains only a degenerate’s capacity for discourse and argumentation. Take for example the film’s hollow depiction of religion and homosexuality’s fatal discord. Veniamin’s doting admirer, Grigoriy, is a gay outcast in his high school. A reasonable person can assume something more interesting to arise from the such gaping cultural disparities, but Grigoriy’s homoerotic attraction to Veniamin only serves to make childish and unfunny jokes about the young fanatic’s heterosexual discomfort. It completely dismantles the potential devastation of the film’s ending when Serebrennikov tries to make a serious point about the very real dangers facing homosexuals today inside intolerant countries embracing fundamentalist religious values.
With no centralizing drama, or even a simple infrastructure of humanity, The Student ironically allows antireligious pedagogics and dogmas overtake Serebrennikov’s story, itself a cautionary tale on the dangers of pedagogical and dogmatic thinking. Anything remotely cinematic in the film are purely cosmetic touches, physical techniques (like the recurring long-takes in the film) are there to mask the film’s lack of actual moral argumentation. What The Student assumes is that most people already agree with its moral points, and it’s hard not to. When religious values oppose things like human progression and foster ideas such as subservience and oppression ultimately the point being made is already self-explanatory. The Student only wants to pander to audience bias, using smear tactics like provocation and intellectual dishonesty to feed populist outrage.
This type of moral ugliness draws comparison to Terry Gilliam’s Orwellian masterpiece Brazil (1985), a film too aggrieved by the conditions of modern cultural institutions. Yet, decrying hedonism and complacency in contemporary culture, Gilliam seemed aware of the general humanity behind his hatred for capitalist excess. Director Kirill Serebrennikov, on the other hand, doesn’t even attempt to empathize with people within his desultory ideological conflict, they’re just stand-ins for his one-dimensional ideological and moral attitudes.