I was surprised and heartened recently to see the news of an upcoming project by Kirill Serebrennikov, one of Russia’s most important and talented theater and film directors. Serebrennikov has been under house arrest in Moscow since late last year, awaiting trial on what many believe are trumped-up embezzlement charges. The director’s star had risen during a brief period in the mid to late 2000s, when the Putin regime was actively seeking to encourage bold and even experimental work in the arts. After 2011, as the Russian government descended into increased paranoia, conservatism, and repression, artists like Serebrennikov started to become its victims. (For a fascinating account of the director’s career, and of the decidedly dubious charges against him, read this excellent New Yorker piece by Joshua Yaffa.)
It turns out that Serebrennikov shot Leto, his upcoming film about Soviet rock icon Viktor Tsoi, right before his arrest. (Indeed, he was taken by the authorities while he was filming the movie in St. Petersburg.) It’ll be interesting to see what happens with that project. But the news around Serebrennikov and his endless legal troubles in an authoritarian regime also bring to mind The Student, the film he premiered in Cannes in 2016 and which got a very cursory U.S. release last year. The Student opened briefly in San Francisco and Chicago, and a couple of other places. As far as I can tell, it never played New York.
The good news is that it’s now available on iTunes. And it’s more powerful than ever.
When I first saw The Student at Cannes, it seemed to be a pretty effective allegory of the slow slide toward religious authoritarianism in Russia. But over the ensuing year or so, the film started to feel less like a metaphor and more like a prophecy. For at its heart, Serebrennikov’s film, based on German playwright Marius von Mayenburg’s 2012 drama, The Martyr, is about this concept we’ve come to call “normalization” — the process by which the most extreme, most unthinkable ideas somehow become an acceptable part of the discourse, thanks to their insistent, aggressive repetition, and the cowardice of others. Watching it again now, I don’t see a movie about Russia anymore. I see a movie about the nightmare we’re all currently living in.
In Serebrennikov’s tightly wound symbolic drama, a Russian high schooler starts spouting off Biblical verses at the teachers, administrators, and teens around him, decrying the hypocrisy of their ways and of what he sees as a fallen world. You can feel the allegory coming from a mile away, but you still get pulled in to the film’s resonant, ideologically charged universe. Venya (Pyotr Skvortsov) is already pretty much a man possessed by the time we meet him, refusing to attend swim class because of the immodesty of the girls’ bikinis and the thought of boys and girls hanging out half-naked together. As his overworked single mother wonders if this piety might just be a phase her son is going through, Venya ratchets up the sermonizing, spitting rage and mockery, even stripping naked in outrage in a biology class when the teacher dares to talk about condoms.
That teacher, Elena (Viktoriya Isakova), eventually emerges as the one force of true resistance against Venya as the boy’s rhetoric becomes more unhinged, unforgiving, and even violent. Everyone else, though, starts to coddle him. Because on some basic level, what he’s saying is just a dramatically less politic expression of what they themselves already kind of believe. (Is this starting to feel familiar?)
Thanks to his complaints, the bikinis get replaced by full single-piece swimsuits, and the school principal challenges the idea of sex education. Later, when Venya objects to the teaching of Darwin, that same principal asks Elena why she can’t just teach both sides of the evolution “debate.” When Venya drags a giant cross into the music room and nails it to the wall, the only objection is that it’s a little crooked. Soon enough, Elena, the sole voice of reason, finds herself persona non grata, as the other adults begrudgingly reveal their own reactionary attitudes about sin, science, homosexuals, and Jews. And yes, a portrait of Vladimir Putin does occasionally appear in the background, though I imagine that’s a standard item in most Russian schools.
A simple description of The Student might make it sound ruthlessly blunt, and I suppose at times it is; helpful titles at the edge of the frame cite the biblical sources of Venya’s words. But Serebrennikov leans into the story’s theatricality while also finding ways to make it resoundingly cinematic. Each scene plays out in an uninterrupted long take, as the Steadicam glides up staircases and through corridors and around the characters. In the hands of a lesser actor, Venya’s crazed, lengthy tirades might have felt stiff and stagebound, but Skvortsov delivers them with such wild-eyed conviction and energy that they’re riveting. The film never stops moving. The actors dart around furiously; it all resembles an angry, fevered dance.
Serebrennikiov immerses us fully in the action, which makes the overt allegory easier to take. But his scenes also build to moments of delirium, as if creating a cinematic corollary to the dark exaltation Venya must be feeling as he spits bile and Bible at the world. The boy’s eruptions are terrifying, but they’re also powerful — we can understand why people follow lunatics like this.
The Student isn’t perfect, and I’m not sure it really can be. How do you end a movie like this? As the story heads toward a resolution, the symbolism does at times verge on the clunky, and the incidents start to feel increasingly contrived. But chalk that up to the tension of creating a work that speaks to our time while attempting to bring it to a satisfying narrative conclusion. For most of its running time, The Student is immensely compelling, a terrifying ride between hothouse realism and dreamy metaphor. If by the end it feels unresolved, perhaps that’s because the nightmare is far from over.
Written and directed by Kirill Serebrennikov
Under the Milky Way
Available on iTunes