Plot details may be made explicit or alluded to
I wonder what the young actor (Pyotr Skvortsov) thought when he received the script for ‘The Student’, him being the named student. Indeed, it’s nearly scripture. But despite this loud, young demagogue, The Student is largely subtle in its composition, and even when the corresponding bible verse of the student’s proclamations usher onto the screen, it’s as if with a bashfulness, in comparison to the effrontery of the proselytising student.
For the good film that it is, it’s quite a conventional arc that we get as well; the fanatic believes he can save the world and humanity, believes he can cure the sick (he does convert one, but his disciple’s passion is of a unwelcoming, sexual kind), believes that he is the prodigal son incarnate. But like all fanaticisms, it is just that, only certain people can be saved by its exclusivity, and when he finds out that his teacher is Jewish, he plots to kill her.
But I’m not wanting to pursue this religious aspect too much here (and I’ve made it sound much more overwrought than it is), nor its rights, its wrongs, and what it might say about contemporary religion in a secular world, because I don’t think this purposefully bold and brash aspect is the subject of it. Like its neat cinematography using the limits of its natural environment, lies a subtle edge. Is is in a restricted environment? Perhaps but there are no special effects in the film or life either. The only flash is the verse references that come up on screen when the student espouses them, that seem more an act of banal empiricism than truth or evidence. And so I think this fanaticism is tied up in a conventional arc that is not the ‘real’ subject. It is there instead as an enveloping diversion, or a distraction and not necessarily a conscious one either. A fiction. We’ve all heard the term brain-washing and it certainly feels here, that it is an attempt to wash over a more serious, grounded issue.
Whether Serebrennikov intended this or not, I’m not sure, but I think there is a case to say that it is inadvertently convalescing when one considers the context the film was produced in. Reviews have expectedly said how this is a film about the oppressive state run by Putin, and although it inevitably it is, I don’t think it’s so simple as that. One doesn’t know what it’s like to live in Russia unless one has lived there. It’s historic relations with the West, and with a leader like Putin, make it a difficult place to surmise. It is a place that clearly embraces capitalism and cavorting with Western leaders to get what it wants, but Putin’s power has a dark, implicative reach across the world stemming from the Kremlin and its authoritarian communist past. And it’s become something of a cliché to say that anything that is produced in a state like Russia, as it’s watched, situated in the west, is a commentary on their society, as if the film/book is a liberating act for the maker and for the viewer. But the viewer is more than likely, already considered ‘liberated’ if watching here, and the maker is more than likely not. Critique requires something more nuanced than the predictable ‘this is a commentary on an oppressive regime’ (which is perhaps a level down from The Student’s obviousness as a commentary on religion) as if we, the viewers in the West are the permanently enlightened ones.
Instead, this is a film that purports that film is perhaps, not so deliverable of a liberated message. If everything is an image in society, what is to say a film image has any precedence over another image? We can depict sex and violence pretty much unrestrained, but does this necessarily mean we’re liberated? Does one of these constitute reality? The Student shows the complexities of this relationship. There is a shameful lack of an outlet for foreign cinema in the UK at least, and the only opportunity that you will get to see one at a reasonable time is an independent cinema, so one wonders who the liberation is serving. Dollars and pounds rather than enlightened thinking one feels. And this is no sneer at the 12 screen multiplex, where great fun is to be had, but there is room for variation.
If everything is image, then symbolism is as close as we’re going to get to reality Serebrennikov seems to be saying. It all depends though , on what symbols snd image you’re paying attention to. As the film goes on, as the student gets more and more deluded about his powers, he begins building a cross. When he takes this cross on his back, trailing on the floor behind him, you’d think that he’s going to his own crucifixion. Instead it becomes something of an understatement as he drags the cross, not high on the hill, but to his school, and begins to nail it up in the hall. Its drama looks a lot less imposing once nailed to a school wall.
The school is an important place though in The Student. Everything is internalised, transferred here. Perhaps this is because the demagoguery is more at home in a school? And perhaps it’s not the enlightening place we’re led, or we lead young people to believe? Who hasn’t been told that your school days are the best days of your life, or that you’re lucky to be able to learn whenever you or somebody protests its function? As great as it is, people forget that there is a lot of dictation, restriction and order in school. It is a place where we learn not to protest.
And so the teacher (Viktoriya Isakova) combats the student’s dogmatism with her good-natured own, delivered sympathetically, trying to rescue him. She tries to teach Evolution, Darwinism, as if this will iron out his Christianity. But they’re all nailing themselves to a cross in this school, searching for answers and enlightenment. The school’s board are unreasonable and archaic, displaying ambivalence to issues that could easily and initially, represent itself as fair-minded and equivocal, but as it develops becomes apparent as bureaucratic rigidness from top-down pressure and force. Is the force invisible like religion? It would seem to be but here is the first slip or sign who’s significance is delayed. Putin. It’s fleeting, hung from the wall, in portraits. The first time I saw it, I almost expected it to be there in the scene, but on the second, it clearly was meant to provoke and signify something in the viewer. And this comes back to the point about the subtlety of the film; the dogmatism of the student, brash and shouting looks nothing more like an attack in the form of the defence, a diversion away from a real enemy of freedom.
Or is it that simple? Sometimes the answer isn’t so obvious and it depends what you try and pay your attention. A film, unlike any other artistic medium, dictates the pace you watch and where you look. Like the image of Putin, there were two other images that did this. When one thinks about the film and if I were to watch this again, these were the images that stuck in my mind, just that subtle dissonance that grates away to an effect of making something ‘not quite right’, gateways to perhaps greater answers. Think of when they’re using carrots as props with the condom over the top. Perhaps that is our ideology and image culture today; transparent, but still cloaking, we can still see its effects but are still impotent to defend against it. Easy to look out of, but looking at in return is not so simple when it is transparent.
And then the closing scene was again, a lingeringly powerful one. It is not the student who in the end, pins himself to the wood, but the teacher. She is not going. She nails her shoes to the floor which does the thing of unifying all these messy dogmas to that spot. Of course, we have the obvious symbolism of the crucifixion. But it also embodies her personal act of trying to remain ‘stable’ as her feet remain still, whilst the upper half of her body begins to look on the verge of breaking down, frantic, demonstrative. Her trainers though, their gairish, hipster coolness standing out in this otherwise plain film. They’re ‘New Balance’ brand. I highly doubt this is a case of product placement, but the teacher wears these shoes for comfort? Comfort from what? Is she after a ‘New Balance’, a new liberal balance? It’s up to you whether you think this is wishful thinking, or is it the answer you’re looking for? If you view the cinema like the school in The Student, you might see a lot of ideas but not any answers.
It’s been a 100 years since the Russian Revolution: does liberation still await Russia, or all of us? How will we ever begin to love our neighbours?