The Student ((M)uchenik)

Russia (2016) Dir. Kirill Serebrennikov

If one is going to make film about religion then in this current, politically charged climate of egg shell treading, being openly confrontational isn’t necessarily a smart move, unless you can safely predict the audience is going to divine your intentions. Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov either didn’t get that memo or just doesn’t care, judging by this hard hitting and provocative film.

High school student Veniamin “Venya” Yuzhin (Pyotr Skvortsov) is proving to be a major disruption at his school, but not through recklessly misbehaving but by preaching the Bible to everyone by means of protest against the evils of the world. At first this is ignored as a fruitless whim but Venya’s fanaticism begins to get very dangerous, causing upset for his hard working single mother Inga (Yuliya Aug).

The only person who isn’t willing to tolerate Venya’s pious campaign is Jewish atheist biology teacher Elena Krasnova (Viktoriya Isakova), who studies the Bible to present a counter attack to his sermons and offer the opposing view proposed by science. This puts Elena square in Venya’s sights as an obstruction that needs to be eliminated, in the name of the Lord.

Based on the play Märtyrer by German playwright Marius von Mayenburg, Serebrennikov offers a challenging and often uncompromising look at a very relevant subject in modern society, applicable any of the various divisions of religion and the tensions the ongoing war between the faithful and the faithless brings. It is necessary to point out that whilst The Student isn’t quite a critique of religion per se no punches are pulled.

It helps to know that Vladimir Putin passed a bill demanding all state schools in Russia offer mandatory religious education, with parents and pupils allowed to choose which instruction they are taught. Given that Communism is closely tied with atheism leading to the separation of the church and state, this created much conflict, perhaps putting the true intentions of Serebrennikov into a clearer perspective.

A subtle satirical bent permeates through this film, embodied largely by the duplicitous school principle Lyudmila Stukalina (Svetlana Bragarnik). Under any other circumstance – and this is the only unrealistic part of the story – Venya would have been removed from the school ASAP but Stukalina won’t be seen as discriminating against Venya’s beliefs, yet will happily berate Elena for being “too dogmatic”.

By presenting a passionate but vexatious set of characters, the idea of any bias is not as applicable as it could be given the topic, instead highlighting why there can never be a definitive or practical solution to this divisive issue. You won’t find any answers from Serebrennikov either but the questions he raises on all sides are compelling and well corroborated, as are the effects of fanatical piety, immediate and far-reaching.

Essentially more than the clash of philosophies which covers a substantial portion of the battle, both sides of the argument are presented albeit under equal farcical pretences. When Elena promotes safe sex by having the class put condoms on carrots, Venya strips naked in protest of this encouragement of promiscuity; later when discussing evolution, Venya dresses up in a gorilla suit to substantiate creationism.  

Unfortunately for Elena, Stukalina takes Venya’s side each time, admonishing Elena for trivialising sex (amusingly whilst a video of horses bonking plays behind her) and for propagating “unfounded” scientific “nonsense” like evolution. Instead of Serebrennikov stoking the flames of this eternal argument he is cleverly using it to strengthen his challenge of Putin’s aforementioned mandate.

Adding further balance is Venya also being at odds with local priest Father Vsevolod (Nikolay Roshchin), accusing him of not reading the Bible properly and disobeying God’s instruction. Venya’s indoctrination seems recent and is never explained, but the ferocity of its hold on him startles even this experienced clergy, fearing Venya has instead been possessed by Satan.

Thus we have the key conceit of the story, the differing interpretations of the scriptures by Venya, Vsevolod – trying to put a positive spin on the messages – and Elena, in combating the unyielding verses Venya recites with alarming authority and conviction. This isn’t an issue of wrong or right, but of context and understanding of the meanings, applied to Christianity in this instance but currently a major global problem with Islam.  

Everything Venya proffers focuses on God’s apparent malevolent side – his demands for sole devotion even at the expense of one’s family and similar solipsistic examples. This extends to anti-Semitism, misogyny and homophobia, the latter reaching its apotheosis when Venya’s crippled disciple, bullied classmate Grigory (Aleksandr Gorchilin) takes Venya’s “acts of love” a little too literally.

It would be interesting to know if the cast had any personal conflicts with the script as it doesn’t show on screen at all, each one immersing themselves in their roles with convincing results. Pyotr Skvortsov carries the weight of the film admirably on his young shoulders as our scary antagonist and handling the verbal discourse with fluidity. Of his opponents, the passionate turn by Viktoriya Isakova as Elena is as fiery as her red hair, matched by the natural weariness of Yuliya Aug as his mother.

Depending on which side of the faith fence you sit, there will be much cause for discussion as to how a film like this helps either stance; the devout will find much fault with it and assuredly deem it blasphemous, whilst the other side will find the devout viewpoints and fervent fanaticism both unsettling and risibly archaic in the 21st century.

Maybe we have gone too far down the road of debauchery or maybe it is time to ditch the Bible with its 2,000-year-old values no longer relevant today – who is really to say? The Student offers a stark, often sardonic but thought provoking dissertation on the freedom of choice, discrimination towards those choices and how it shapes our moral direction, coming from a country where this is seemingly becoming a luxury not a liberty.  

2 thoughts on “The Student ((M)uchenik)

  1. Very thought-provoking review. I am meaning to watch this film, even though I very much dislike watching films in my native language – they always seem so traumatic to me. That is the reason why I am usually shying away from the work of Zvyagintsev, and am unwilling to watch this year’s Cannes’ “Loveless”. The reason I am attracted to this one is religion – and if it is as intelligent as you say, I am definitely in. I also find the Russian language word-play in the title here clever – “uchenik” translates as “a student/pupil”, while “muchenik” is “a sufferer/martyr”.

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    1. Thanks for the comment and the explanation of the title! I wasn’t aware that you were Russian, your English is superb. 🙂

      As an atheist I naturally tend to side with Elena’s viewpoint but the film is really about the dangers of fanaticism incurred by the lack of balanced information. I’m sure as a Russian, much of the satirical commentary will mean more to you.

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