There was a time when scores of defiant adolescents asserted intellectual independence from their parents by turning their backs on religion. In this more agnostic age, picking up the Bible can be just as startling an act of rebellion in many households. So it proves in Kirill Serebrennikov’s splendid “The Student,” a stormy, swoon-inducingly shot bout of Russian moral wrestling that hits as hard and as heavily as a nastoyka hangover. Though Serebrennikov clearly takes a side in this rhetorical battle between an aggressively Christianized high-schooler and his liberal, Jewish-born biology teacher, this is a welcome study of religious fanaticism that doesn’t discredit either party’s intelligence, and knows its oats either way: Viewers who are either unfamiliar with or estranged from the Good Book should prepare themselves for a veritable tsunami of scripture, rigorously extracted and reassembled as riveting spiritual debate.
If that sounds a tough sell, it probably is: The fevered verbal tone and vertiginous formal activity of Serebrennikov’s films gives them narrower international appeal than, say, those of his compatriot Andrey Zvyagintsev, though they’re comparable in heft and gravity. Still, there’s an of-the-moment urgency to “The Student’s” unexpected generational face-off that should draw broader arthouse interest than Serebrennikov’s 2012 Venice competition entry “Betrayal” — a heated, dazzlingly mounted romantic tragedy that sadly never caught fire beyond the festival circuit. At a time when arguments over educational “safe spaces” and belief-based “micro-aggressions” are prominent in the media, this wildly escalating classroom drama — based on a stage work by German playwright Marius von Mayenburg — serves as a frightening cautionary tale. Whether it ultimately comes down for or against unqualified free speech, however, is one of many potential topics of post-screening conversation.
Three years ago, Russian president Vladimir Putin passed a bill enforcing mandatory religious education in all state schools — permitting students and their parents a choice between six religious disciplines, the dominant ideology of Orthodox Christianity chief among them. It was a motion that stood somewhat in conflict with the official separation of church and state, placing clear emphasis on how far modern Russia has drifted from the enforced atheism of Communist rule. As portrayed in “The Student,” schools still appear to be in a transitional phase on this front — perhaps significantly, the action takes place in Kaliningrad Oblast, a Russian exclave that itself seems caught between different geographical and political identities.
So it is that bright, sulkily handsome teenager Venya (Pyotr Skvortsov, an impressive brooder) attends side-by-side classes with patient Orthodox priest (Nikolai Roschin) and more spikily atheistic biology teacher Elena (Victoria Isakova), each of whom is free to represent their own spiritual views, or lack thereof, in their lessons. When Venya angrily protests — in a gorilla costume, no less — against Elena’s unquestioning teaching of evolutionary theory, the school’s conservative-leaning principal (Svetlana Bragarnik) wearily suggests that Elena incorporate creationism into her syllabus. Such unsustainable compromise, also recalling controversies that have flared up in U.S. institutions, calls into question the scientific educator’s responsibility in the present day: Is it to impart conventional wisdom, or to provide the intellectual resources that enable impressionable students to decide for themselves?
Venya, it appears, wouldn’t be happy either way. His rabid, and evidently recent, embrace of Christian doctrine (self-taught, it appears, from a well-thumbed pocket Bible) brooks little argument, as he obsessively quotes selected passages as inarguable ethical and existential truths — extending to adamantly right-wing stands on feminism, Judaism and homosexuality. Elena is far from his only foe in this regard, though thanks to Isakova’s testy, fiery performance, she’s by far his most formidable.
Elsewhere on campus, he outrages his history teacher by quoting the Gospel of St. John to dubiously prove why there’s no need for industrialization, and makes a collective enemy of his already dismissive female classmates when he successfully advocates to ban two-piece bathing suits from swimming classes. That the female-dominated school administration largely accommodates the demands of this male Christian crusader could be viewed as a rueful representation of Russia’s political hierarchy; though it’s brutally, persuasively sad as character study, “The Student” maintains a grotesque satirical streak throughout.
Serebrennikov’s acrobatic writing (with its barrage of scriptural quotes methodically annotated on-screen) and Skvortsov’s perfectly deadpan performance manage to keep aloft the question of whether Venya’s militant expressions of faith are entirely earnest, or whether there’s more than a hint of perverse, boundary-testing provocation to them. His cruel interactions with his bewildered, overbearing non-believer of a mother (Julia Aug, superb) are certainly colored by spite, as he insists God is punishing her for divorcing his absent father. The nauseatingly overdecorated apartment they share, vividly furnished by production designer Ekaterina Scheglova in heaving, clashing florals, resembles a nondenominational hell equivalent to Mrs. White’s house in “Carrie,” though the role of oppressive puritan is shifted from parent to child. “I wish he collected stamps or jerked off all the time,” she wails — a sentiment that may be recognized by a few parents of more stably righteous millennial teens.
As Venya’s spiritual awakening spirals violently out of control, Serebrennikov’s filmmaking soars and swells with grandly tragic volume, teetering uncertainly only in the final throes. (Your aesthetic brio has to be pretty muscular to sustain soundtrack choices like Slovenian industrial metal band Laibach’s grinding “God Is God.”) The long, roving, breathtaking sequence shots favored by the director and his ace cinematographer Vladislav Opelyants become almost exhausting in their looping cursive continuity; the sense of all these characters being on an ineluctable collision course — physical and ideological — is brilliantly entrenched by the film’s restless visual language. “The Student” is a film that never stops to think; it thinks (and speaks, and shouts) while prodigiously on the move.