Magazine article Screen International

'The Student' : Cannes Review

Magazine article Screen International

'The Student' : Cannes Review

Article excerpt

Dir/scr. Kirill Serebrennikov. Russia, 2016, 118 mins

Virtue is a matter of interpretation in The Student (Uchenik), as the titular teen challenges the patience and perspectives of his mother, teachers and classmates by spouting bible verse. Adapting German playwright's Marius von Mayenburg's controversial theatre work Martyr, writer/director Kirill Serebrennikov extends the concept of the disillusioned youthful know-it-all to an uncommon extreme, complete with new-found faith, near-constant theological debates, and alternatingly satirical, scathing and surreal dissections of religious fanaticism; however his assured handling of the ambitious material inspires an intriguing film to match.

The Student is the type of feature programmers will appreciate but broader audiences may struggle with, marking the international film festival circuit as its likely home after its Cannes Un Certain Regard premiere. That said, Serebrennikov's penchant for lengthy, unbroken shots ensures interest never wavers, as does his ability to stage a raftof standout scenes (a naked outburst about the merits of sex education, and a heavy metal-scored, cross-bearing walk through the streets among them).

In fact, the Russian filmmaker astutely lets his aesthetics do as much heavy lifting as possible. That includes cinematographer Vladislav Opelyants' crisply lensed - and equally visually and thematically effective - lighting choices, sometimes preferring the harsh, dull glow of naturalistic light, sometimes saturating the screen with almost divine radiance, but always making a statement.

The feature's opening, a prolonged argument between protagonist Veniamin (Petr Skvortsov) and his overworked single mother (Julia Aug), typifies this approach. In endeavouring to immerse viewers in such a heightened scenario, and one that even its characters seem perplexed by, a continuous six-minute take that fluidly bobs and weaves through their apartment as they bicker over swimming lessons feels fitting as well as telling.

Veniamin's unwillingness to get into the water is revealed to be spiritually motivated: adhering to the letter of biblical law, he's protesting the revealing costumes donned by his female peers. As his objections and impromptu sermons on this and other matters escalate in frequency and fervor, his mother demands assistance from the school.

Headmistress (Svetlana Bragarnik) acquiesces, as does the bulk of the faculty, leaving biology teacher Elena (Victoria Isakova) as the primary source of dissent against what she labels "pseudo-prophetic hysterics". …

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