The Student: An uncomfortable film

Seems like there was some internal disagreement on how to translate the title of The Student. The poster in the cinema’s foyer read student, the film’s subtitles meanwhile chose to interpret it as The Disciple. Reading online the transliterated original would have been (M)Uchenik which also adds a pun in there involving the word Martyr. Of the three possible meanings I wonder why they chose to go with Student, it certainly seems the least useful. Ah well.

The Student is a very angry film. So angry it makes itself hard to watch sometimes, the heat and rage blistering the screen. When Eisenstein spoke of the kino-fist, it was this sorta thing he was referring to. Except filmmaking has evolved, and we too as viewers, the montage ain’t enough to awe us no more, so the film traps us in this constantly moving, roving, disorienting camera. Filling its scenes with chaos, too many people too much action, tempers too high and frayed and about to explode. It’s a film that wants you to hurt watching it.

These things hurt in real life, you see, why should the film sugar coat it? A high school student has found Jesus, the extent to which this belief is sincerely held verses it being a socially mandated way for him to unleash his hate and antipathy to the world and everything in it is left to the audience to decide. Hell, why not both? He is belligerent, disruptive, homophobic, misogynist, violent and gets away with all of it because he has a book to quote and a faculty that would prefer less trouble.

The film seems to have its sights set pretty keen on the Russian Orthodox Church, its corruption, its bigotry, its hypocrisy, impotence. I cannot rightly say how well it functions as a takedown, as a western viewer it became an illustration of something much more present and troubling. To my eyes the film’s about the state of our political discourse, lining up with an accuracy so perfectly on the mark I can say with certainty that it was not by accident it found its way into the lens.

The fall of Milo Yiannopoulos is pretty old news by this point, Right Wing provocateur defends paedophilia, gets shitcanned from everywhere that once had any relationship with him. But how did this reprehensible, disgusting, abusive man get into a position of power in the first place. By being entertaining, and funny, and pretending he had some sort of moral underpinning for his actions and surrounded by a lot of people who thought it more important that a racist, homophobic, transphobic, classist wanker be given an opportunity to speak than defend decent discourse.

Which is what happens in this film, which is what happens in all the schools in the southern states of America. ‘Of course the girls should be made to dress more modestly if the boys are upset.’ Comes the first cry. Then, ‘You’re a biology teacher, you shouldn’t be teaching about contraception, it’s not science.’ Then, ‘Well, if you’d only propose creationism as an alternate theory…’ And so on and so on until all society is gone to fuck.

Why does nobody stop him? Because he’s mad, everyone agrees that this person is so far removed from reality that there’s no point to be had in resisting, and yet, by allowing it to continue, the madness becomes a part of the fabric of life and all of a sudden those who initially dismissed it find it more and more convincing. People do rebel of course, but what’s it they say about wrestling the pig? To argue with a madman is to make yourself seem mad and because he, deep down, doesn’t really care about the points, doesn’t have to defend them, he can just call hysteria, wilfully attack the madwoman who’s trying to call him out.

The leads in this joint Pyotr Skvortsov and Viktoriya Isakova capture all of this, capture the madness and the competition and everything else besides. I hope they had a good relationship on set, Writer/Director Kirill Serebrennikov has worked extensively in the stage world, currently artistic manager for Moscow’s famous Gogol Theatre. He’s talked about extensive rehearsals, one can only hope he created a compassionate space for these actors, because what we see on the screen is viciousness.

Adapted from a German play by Marius von Mayenburg themes become twisted in Russia, a notably in relation to the country’s attitude towards homosexuality. The relationship between the fanatic Veniamin and the disabled Grigoriy who he attempts to cure of his ailment becomes far heavier than I imagine would have been in the original production. Props anyway to, the (I believe) straight, Alexander Gorchilin for his compassion in bringing the role to life. It’s not the best portrayal, and it won’t save a country, but at least there’s some recognition there.

But for all it gains in the translation, much is lost in the subtitling. For all these characters quote scripture, even with the references appearing in onscreen titles whenever a direct quote is made, the subtitling for them wavers close to nonsense. I’m sure they’re accurate transliterations of the lines spoken, but even some of the most obvious quotations, The Sermon on the Mount come up a few times, are barely recognisable. Check the NIV, check the KJV, check whichever adaptation you like but to divorce these lines from our cultural understanding of the scripture is to a disservice to the film as a whole.

Not to put it too harsh, but that sure do feel like a dude movie. It comes across a little too pleased with itself, enjoying the violence it commits a little too much. There’s a discomfort there at the centre where it rides that line between presenting exploitation and being exploitative. It don’t always come down on the right side, it’s uncomfortable viewing sure, and illustrative, but I can see people who would watch this and not feel uncomfortable for a moment. Those people scare me, I just don’t think they scare the film.

Image courtesy of ARP Sélection

One response to “The Student: An uncomfortable film”

  1. […] The Student is a film about Russian orthodoxy and political discourse. Kirill Serebrennikov’s direction is fearless, but is there such a thing as enjoying yourself too much? […]


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