We don’t know what radicalized “The Student.” But something set him off. And the school and society that surround him must cope.
He has taken to wearing black, and not bathing. He has his holy texts with him, always. He’s enraged by the revealing bikinis in coed swim class, so they’re banned. “Modesty” becomes a byword of the school’s conservative administration.
He disrupts class with diatribes on Biblical “truths,” sexuality, corrupt popular culture and science. He isn’t suspended or even disciplined.
And the one teacher who stands up to him is scolded, cajoled and threatened to just go along to get along.
It wouldn’t surprise most moviegoers if Venya, “The Student,” was a Muslim insisting on changing the Western culture he’s immersed in. But the deranged, radicalized and possibly violent Venya (Pyotr Skvortsov) is a Christian fundamentalist. And the society refusing to engage, debate and correct this dangerous, homophobic “abomination” is Russia.
Kirill Serebrennikov’s film, which had the Russian title “The Student Martyr,” is both a Jeremiad about being out of step with your culture and a blunt allegory about trying to reason with the unreasonable, attempting to debate the fact-averse and the dangers posed by religious fanatics of every stripe.
It is the American Christian screen screed “God’s Not Dead” as seen from “the other side.” As in “How do you argue with the irrational?”
Venya’s single-mom works three jobs, and is rattled by his sudden conversion.
“God will JUDGE you, Mom,” he hisses (in Russian, with English subtitles), “in a furnace of FIRE.”
The school priest/guest lecturer sees Venya’s pious usefulness, not the threats implicit in the Bible passages he quotes.
“I haven’t come to bring piece but the sword,” Venya bellows. “The ax is laid on the root of the tree!”
An anti-social kid whom the pretty girl (Aleksandra Revenko) suddenly finds an alluring challenge won’t let himself be tempted. The bullied disabled boy (Aleksandr Gorchilin) becomes his first disciple — with Venya promising to heal the one leg that’s shorter than the other. Grisha (Gorchilin) is just happy to have someone who will touch him.
Only the biology/sex ed teacher with the psychological training (Viktoriya Isakova) is onto Venya, is willing to fight back. She studies the Bible, tries to counter his arguments and still loses control of her class thanks to his antics.
And the administration just indulges the kid, giving him centimeters, so that he can turn them into kilometers.
The performances are spot on, with Skvortsov suggesting fanatical piety, inflamed puberty and violence — against himself or others — in many moments. Serebrennikov’s camera stalks Venya through a world that loses its colors, the more Venya rebels. A fundamentalist/fascist future not unlike the totalitarian Soviet past (check out the “beach” where the locals hang out, an industrial concrete breakwater) is hinted at, and the film reminds one of smart Soviet cinema that was created under the nose of the dictatorship.
Isakova makes the teacher a worthy foil, studying for each day’s debate, but someone who questions herself as much as the too-compliant school principal does.
“The Student” makes a chilling allegory for the post-fact age (Russia invented it, remember), and a cautionary tale for cultures everywhere. There’s such a thing as being too tolerant of the intolerant.
MPAA Rating: unrated, with violence, nudity, profanity
Running time: 1:58