The United States is not the only country whose public school districts debate the inclusion of so-called “intelligent design” in curricula. Several years ago, in a break with almost a century of atheism, Vladimir Putin pushed legislation calling for mandatory religious education in public schools.
In The Student, a new Russian film starring Pyotr Skvortsov as Venya, a teen obsessed with the Old Testament in a high school struggling to adjust to the, pardon the pun, new orthodoxy. Everything becomes his target — his mother, fooling around with a new boyfriend; a girl with a crush on him; the biology teacher disgusted by the school’s indulging his nonsense — until it’s clear he means to obliterate himself. This battle builds to a climax between the forces of reaction and the forces of logic. An amusing and intermittently powerful film, The Student understands the rhetoric of religious mania but not its origins. There’s a sense in which Venya’s fanaticism is the peg on which to hang a violent denouement
Speed is The Student‘s strongest point. In the film’s opening scenes Kirill Serebrennikov’s camera follows Venya around a cramped Moscow apartment as Elena (Viktoriya Isakova) questions the changes in her son. For a few minutes viewers can’t see the actors’ faces — an interesting strategy. A young Rasputin whose eye sockets are bored into his facial structure, Venya is inflexible and humorless, like many adolescents, a fact which delights the rather stupid Orthodox priest (Nikolai Roschin). Peak hilarity ensues when he shouts passages from the Sermon on the Mount at sunbathers. While Mom (Julie Aug) is on vacation, he rips down the wallpaper, horrifying her (she works three jobs). “I wish he collected stamps and jerked off all the time like other boys!” she moans to her boyfriend. Venya is worse at school. In biology class, a discussion on homosexuality devolves into an objection to putting condoms on carrots — and Venya wearing a gorilla costume to protest the teaching of evolution. The school’s cowed principal (Svetlana Bragarnik) takes Venya’s side, prompting an unwinnable argument between the teacher, Elena (Viktoriya Isakova), who represents youth and progressivism, and the superstitious older woman.
Two of these colloquies goes a long way, and The Student is a less interesting picture when it styles itself as a stage on which the age-old conflict between faith and reason can clash some more. Moreover, presenting religious mania as a consequence of suppressed homosexuality was already a wheeze in Bernardo Bertolucci’s great The Conformist (1970). Serebrenniko for the most part sticks to comedy: his mother’s theorizing that Jesus and his disciples were a gang of queer outcasts; the game performance of Aleksandr Gorchilin as Grigoriy, Yuzhin’s best friend, who for the sake of a hug or a leg massage will repeat Venya’s babble. When the final battle is waged, Serebrenniko errs: Elena responds to Venya’s goading. Attempting Dostoyevskian dialectics, the result looks like a commitment to centrism: everyone is crazy, so no one is.