Kirill Serebrennikov’s formidable “The Student” (Uchenik) is a distressing satire of the dogma of the all-powerful Russian Orthodox Church, with teen Veniamin finding that invoking a strict interpretation of the Bible in all matters allows him to resist any and all authorities. Tall, with the brooding, intent looks of a teen Michael Shannon, Pyotr Skvortsov is a superb incarnation of both zealot and charlatan, a would-be boy Messiah adopting fierce language—“Don’t think I have come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword” is a favored bit from Matthew—to create hostility and intolerance in the classroom.
Serebrennikov first directed a play by German playwright Marius von Mayenburg before adapting it into this restless takedown of religious indoctrination in Russian schools. But there’s a larger picture in his assuredly cast faces, his extended takes and dynamic, mostly handheld widescreen compositions, the voluptuously-hued colors (cinematographer Vladislav Opelyants’ work includes three features for veteran director Nikita Mikhalkov) and sometimes unmotivated pools of light.
Once his teachers and principal are impressed, a larger world appears to be opening: “”The Church needs more people like you!” one exults. (“I wish he would jerk off like normal boys his age,” his mother observes.) As parables about fundamentalism go, “The Student” is bold and compelling. Among the other stylistic strokes: Serebrennikov’s onscreen citation of every wisp of the Bible Veniamin tugs free from context reminds us that his increasingly savage condemnation of those around him comes from the Holy Bible and not from his fevered imagination. 118m. (Ray Pride)
“The Student” opens Friday, April 28 at Facets.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.