Thug Nation: Russia in Leviathan and The Student

by Daniel Garrett Volume 26, Issue 3-4 / April 2022 28 minutes (6822 words)

“Meaning is not something which is out there in the world apart from language which language, acting simply like a mirror, reflects. The world is what it is, and societies use the instrumentality of symbolism to make certain relations in the world intelligible to them. They have to impose a system of meaning on the world. The system of meaning is derived from the categories into which they break up the world, and from the rules of combining and recombining those meanings which they have identified for themselves. Meaning and intelligibility are articulated onto the world. It is not given or already present in the world and then simply expressed or reproduced through language.”
—Stuart Hall, Cultural Studies 1983: A Theoretical History

“If you compare the post-Soviet bear to the Soviet one, the only thing they have in common is the imperial roar. However, the post-Soviet bear is teeming with corrupt parasites that infected it during the 1990s, and have multiplied exponentially in the last decade. They are consuming the bear from within.”
—Vladimir Sorokin on Putin, “Let the Past Collapse on Time!” New York Review of Books (May 8, 2014)

Whenever I read Anton Chekhov’s great play Three Sisters, I am charmed by the cultivated but melancholy family at its center, its three sisters Olga, Masha, and Irina and brother Andrei, a family that has lost its moorings away from Moscow, with only intelligent military officers to entertain them in their home on the edge of a provincial town, and I am irritated by the brother’s fiancée Natasha, a rather ordinary, plain girl who yet has simple, implacable beliefs and convictions. I felt the same as always when I saw recently Laurence Olivier’s 1970 film of a late 60s theatrical production of Three Sisters, starring a particularly charming Alan Bates as Colonel Vershinin (Olivier’s performance as Dr. Chebutikin was strong too)—but I realize, again and again, that while the family and I are entertained, and even moved, by its philosophical musing, this plain but willful girl takes over the family’s home. Natasha is there to take over the family’s home—Natasha is of another class; she is the future. She is a mundane force, neither philosophical nor poetic, justifying her authority with claims of practicality and sense. That is the genius of Chekhov—the character who seems too ordinary, disposable and unnecessary, is the one who will not be denied, the one who will exist always. That is one lesson of Russian history. I was reminded of another lesson when screening Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, Parts 1 and 2: the depiction of Ivan Grozny (1530 – 1584) and the Moscow prince’s assumption of the position and power of czar, determined to unify the diverse Russian principalities and lands. In Sergei Eisenstein’s intelligent and expressionistic work, dramatic and historical, one could see Russian nationalism with its inevitable conflicts (how the czar claimed lands through military force that did not want to be claimed); featuring a scenario that has correspondence with today’s world. Chekhov saw the force of ordinary people, and Eisenstein the dominance of a central authority with national and international ambitions.

Other Russian artist and writers, of course, such as Alexander Pushkin and Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy, have given us great portraits of Russian personalities and perspectives; but so have the painters and poets, dancers and musicians, like Anna Akhmatova, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Joseph Brodsky, Karl Bryullov, Marc Chagall, Nikolai Gogol, Wassily Kandinsky, Lazar Lissitzky, Vladimir Nabokov, Rudolf Nureyev, Maxim Gorky, Lyudmila Petrushevskaya, Ilya Repin, Andrei Rublev, Alexander Scriabin, Valentin Serov, Igor Stravinsky, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Yevgeny Yevtushenko; and filmmakers such as Vladimir Romashkov, Yevgeny Bauer, Pyotr Chardynin, Aleksei Balabanov, Ivan Dykhovichny, Vladimir Khotinenko, Valeri Todorovsky, Sergei Selyanov—and, especially, Andrei Tarkovsky and Alexander Sokurov: all have helped us to see, hear, and read Russian society and spirituality. Andrei Tarkovsky—Nostalghia (1983) and The Sacrifice (1986)—created works that brought together the personal, philosophical, and political, exploring profundity whether it emerged from contemplation of land or loneliness, water or wisdom. Alexander Sokurov is an artist committed to heritage, Russian and international, and his subjects can be abstract or intimate, and he is given to experiments in imagery and form. His Russian Ark (2002), a tour of the Hermitage and the ages and personalities that made its art collection possible, is a work of beauty and even courage; and his Faust (2011), focused on a gifted man’s grubby dealings with the devil for love and money, is thoughtful and disturbing.

Leviathan and The Student are two contemporary films offering narrative as articulated or observed events, emotions, and evidence of a genuine if troubled life, a civic life—political and social—that seems one not of law and order but misrule and disorder beneath a dreary, banal surface. The film Leviathan (2014), directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev, who made The Return (2003), The Banishment (2007), and Elena (2011), opens with the old and natural beauty of cliff, rocky beach, boulders, lake, electric wiring stands, pier, and wrecked old boats, suggesting the mysterious forces of nature and time, against the brief willful force of men and women. Following those opening images conjuring nature and time, in Russia’s Teribenka region, we see a small, weathered house during an early morning, its lights being turned on; and in that house, his house, a man drinks, turns off the lights, and leaves the house, gets in his car and drives away—over a bridge, pass a small village, into town (a fictional town, Pribrezhny). He, Kolya (Aleksei Serebryakov), the central character, a man trying to hold on to his small weathered house and land, meets his friend and lawyer, Dimitri or Dima, at a train station. Dima is a friend from the days of Kolya’s army service, in which Kolya was a leader—and Dima seems to be doing Kolya a favor. Kolya is embroiled in a legal case, the proposed seizure of his property, and the odds are against him: how can one man fight established power, especially when laws are interpreted, and procedures organized, by standards that seem arbitrary, mysterious, personal. Dima (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), friend and lawyer, showers in a motel room, after his trip from Moscow, before going with Kolya to Kolya’s house. On the drive, a policeman at an intersection asks the mechanic Kolya for a favor for a friend, an associate who needs car repair; and an irritated Kolya agrees to help the next day. The nation seems to move by routine—and by favors, bribes, and threats; although there is pride in family and history. Kolya’s pretty, younger wife, Lilya (Elena Lyadova), is at home with Kolya’s rude son, Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev), who, after arguing with Lilya, warmly welcomes Kolya and Dima. When Kolya says, “Don’t talk to your mother like that,” his son Roma says, “She’s not my mother.” (Is Roma still missing his now deceased mother—or is he just an ornery boy?) Kolya says only, “Difficult age,” not realizing how troubling such overt hostility is, what roiling feelings are harbored, or how destructive Roma’s attitude is; and Kolya, instead, thinks punitive discipline, a simple slap, is a remedy. Dima says Kolya should not hit Roma, but Kolya brushes that off. Lilya says she will not drive Roma to school as Roma has been rude all morning. Is Kolya the kind of man who can take on official power in Russia, authoritarian, corrupt, and demolishing when Kolya has difficulty managing his own household?

Russia is known for some of its arts, such as music, ballet, and literature, as well as for authoritarian government and impoverished masses in different eras, whether that of the czar or the general secretary or the current president. The rule of a singular leader can seem to be the rule of irrationality, of personal impulse, no matter how gifted the leader. Whether one gets a Catherine the Great or a Stalin, one bows and waits for decree. How can people who have long known obedience learn new lessons, a new way of life? The offices and resources of state are exploited for personal use, something many people know, even as they hope for a resurgence of national respect and even glory. Vladimir Putin has attempted to accumulate the mystique and power of czar, general secretary, and president, although many who observe him and his nation from abroad think they see counterfeit power, a country that does not produce very much of what is desirable, ruled by someone who can deliver few necessary services and supports to his own people—who still drink too much. Using art as evidence against a nation or a people is a questionable activity, as artists tend to look for conflict for reasons of drama alone; and yet, there are so many questions about the nature of Russian life and politics that it is inevitable that one feels compelled to look for clues and insight in the cinema, in the visions and voices open to observation and interpretation in Russian film, such as Leviathan and The Student. Knowledge and ignorance? Good and evil? There are dialectical aspects to many films, as there may be in life: a story of harsh circumstances seems to yearn or move toward moments of beauty, joy, illumination; or a story of happiness and comfort is disrupted by unexpected trouble. Maybe that is why we focus so much on conflict, so much on contradictions and dualities. Leviathan and The Student show some of the confusions and difficulties of contemporary Russia. The corruption of authority and the ignorance, despair, and rage of ordinary citizens that one hears about, must have an analysis, diagnosis and proposed solutions.

In Andrey Zvyagintsev’s photoplay Leviathan, “what promises to be an inspiring Mr. Smith-like tale instead seems derived from equal parts Kafka and Chekhov, the bureaucratic nightmares of one drawn out with the seething quietude of the other. Filmed and framed with stately elegance, its blue-gray palette and arresting natural setting heightening the physical beauty of its lead players, Leviathan obeys all the tenets of the best political thrillers, with Kolya’s circuitous journey introducing the audience to a cast of fascinatingly ambiguous characters,” observed Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post (January 22, 2015). What created those characters, and what they might become, is open to speculation: circumstances suggest current corruption, but not how and why that corruption began and grew. How can an ideal of the public good be promoted? What other than corruption is possible if governors do not trust the creativity and freedom, the corrections, of the governed? Reviewer Ty Burr was surprised that the film was Russia’s official submission for the Academy Awards in Hollywood: “Did anyone in charge even see this movie? Don’t they understand that its contempt for life in modern Russia is complete, that it tells a small story of corruption and loss so that it becomes a condemnation of an entire nation?” (The Boston Globe, February 19, 2015); and Burr went on to say, “Leviathan paints a careful, measured portrait of a society in which venality and vodka rule, where things fall apart not because that’s how life works but because people are stupid and petty and cruel.” The film, once promoted by Russian authorities for its art, as it received acclaim was then condemned by them for its politics. The director’s subsequent film Loveless, something of a detective story about a quarreling couple and their missing son, would be completed without official support. “The people in power look into the mirror and do not like what they see. But it is just my point of view, my perception of reality. I could be wrong,” the director Zvyagintsev told Xan Brooks of the British newspaper The Guardian around the time of the Cannes premiere of Loveless, referenced in a January 12, 2018 article.)

In Leviathan, Lilya (Elena Lyadova) confides in family friend Dima (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) that she wants to move but that her husband Kolya is not enthused. Kolya (Aleksei Serebryakov), after giving Lilya a passionate kiss, and the well-dressed Dima take Roma to school. However a policeman, Stepanych—stops by for car repair service shortly after the subject had been broached with Kolya, who said he would take care of it tomorrow not today. Kolya explains he has to prepare for a court appointment later that day and is not going to be available. When Kolya and Dima do begin to discuss the property seizure case and a possible strategy, Dima, rather than arguing a point of law, or a regulatory exemption, says that he, Dima, has found material about the corrupt mayor’s past that might be used to intimidate him, Vadim. Dima admits that Vadim survives because someone more important finds him useful. Is that someone a political party leader, a state security figure, a raw materials owner, a utilities company leader, a church administrator? Kolya, in court, faces the presiding panel of judges, with the watching Dima and Lilya his only support (Lilya’s friends Angela and Pacha could not attend—Kolya dismisses them). Kolya has contested how he was notified of the land seizure case, and he disagrees with the judgement of his property’s value, but a judge reads, quickly and coldly, an official decree affirming the original decision and rejecting Kolya’s appeal.

What are the lessons of history? That civilizations are born, grow, and die? That wealth and power ratify themselves and excuse the errors of their allegiants while punishing opponents? That natural resources are discovered, used to address real needs, plundered to exploit greed, exhausted, missed? That scapegoats can be found—always? That societies offer counsel and consolation as well as conflicts between classes? Who are the powers behind the Pribrezhny town mayor Vadim (Roman Madyanov), a corrupt, vulgar, and hypocritical bully? One is a well-placed orthodox priest, Arkhierey (Valeriy Grishko), to whom Vadim expresses his worry about a coming mayoral election (the bully is afraid). The high priest embodies tradition and bureaucracy, dogma, and gorgeous real estate; and he offers support but not sympathy—and he does not want to know the details of Vadim’s shenanigans (he can claim plausible deniability). In his car later, Vadim tells his men to tear down Kolya’s house, no concern for Kolya’s loss or his future; but, drunk, Vadim insists on going there, now, that night, himself. Kolya (Aleksei Serebryakov), having lost his appeal, is angry, and drinking too, and considering taking the money offered and getting an apartment near Lilya’s friends Angela and Pacha, whereas Dima suggests they come to Moscow, where he lives. Vadim’s car arrives, honks the horn; and soon the two drunken men, Vadim and Kolya, argue, with Vadim calling Kolya and his family and friend insects. Dima says that Vadim has no right to be there, but Vadim says that Kolya never had any rights and never will have rights.

Kolya (Aleksei Serebryakov) does not want to move to Moscow—Kolya says he will stay where he is. (What is Moscow—culture, opportunity? What had his wife Lilya thought she was getting with or in Kolya?) Dima (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) prepares to file a charge against Vadim, presumably for trespassing and harassment. The policeman, Stepanych, who needed the car repair, visits again, and he invites Dima to join him, Kolya and the others for an outdoor gathering, a birthday picnic, the next day. Before that, Kolya, Dima, and Lilya go to a police station to file charges against Vadim for trespassing; but Kolya is arrested for being disruptive and noisy at the police station. Lilya visits her friend Angela, asking for the intervention of Pacha, Angela’s husband, a policeman (Angela calls Pacha, tells him to have Stepanych go to court for Kolya; and Angela shows Lilya an available apartment).

When Vadim the mayor (Roman Madyanov) meets with Moscow lawyer Dimitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), there is a picture of Putin in Vadim’s office; and Vadim says that he has heard about Dima’s crusades of the day, before Dima hands Vadim a file of Vadim’s misdeeds—Dima calls it a horror movie with Vadim in the lead. Dima meets with Lilya at a small restaurant, and says he thinks they might get a large settlement. Is Dima serious? Is that how things work in Moscow, all favors and threats; or does Dima expect a small town to be more manageable than a city; or is Dima being, with Lilya, hopeful or manipulative? Dima goes up to his room, and Lilya follows—apparently, they have an intimate relationship, the attractive young wife and the best friend, two betrayers of Kolya—who is being betrayed by mayor and court. Vadim, startled by his meeting with Dima, is upset (Vadim is not sure who is the power behind Dimitri); and Vadim says to his governing team that if he, Vadim, does not get elected again in a year, their status ends—no more mansions, cash, and foreign vacations (great to know the rewards of corruption).

On the friendly group outing with Stepanych, Pacha, Angela, Kolya, Lilya, Roma, Dima, and others, after the cavalcade of cars arrives near a beautiful lake, there are drinking and target practice with guns. After a bunch of empty bottles are used as targets, those targets are replaced with large portraits of past Russian leaders—which seems terribly funny. Those men, once great state officials, now gone, were among the symbols of the nation—the sort of people celebrated during meetings, parades, concerts—but now their portraits are empty relics or bad memories. The portraits as targets were brought by the policeman Stepanych, who is celebrating his birthday—and who, as a policeman, must have an understanding of the legal and political systems (his cheery cynicism is telling). The rules of the shooting game are simple: “One drink if you hit the target, and three drinks if you miss,” says Kolya. The assembled seem relaxed; but the mood changes when one of the children returns crying. It seems that Lilya and Dima, were observed, and the little boy thinks Dima has been attacking Lilya, as Roma, who had smoked and drank alcohol with his friends in an old ruin before the picnic, reacts like a child, crying at the sight of what was a romantic embrace or sexual congress. Kolya and some of the others run to the site, and Kolya hits both his friend Dima and wife Lilya. Dima and Lilya ride back together, both looking beat; and they talk in Dima’s rented room about fault and guilt—Dima says everyone is responsible for their own mistakes, their own faults—but even confession does not prove guilt before the law. I believe in facts, Dima says.

Angela and Pacha, Lilya’s friends, get drunk with Kolya: they are groggy, slow-moving, honest, and funny. Lilya (Elena Lyadova) returns home to Kolya, and Angela and Pacha leave. Lilya, the next morning, takes a bus to work—there are a lot of plain, plump women on the bus. Lilya still has the glamour of her youth, but her life has much of the dreariness of theirs, as she is on her way to her job at a fish processing factory. Angela tells Lilya that Kolya still loves her (a nice assurance, but was this, and is this, enough?)—and Angela is intrigued by Lilya’s affair (intrigue that suggests Kolya’s love is not enough, that the affair offers some essential romance to both women). Kolya and Roma begin packing, before the eviction and demolition; and Kolya kisses Lilya, aroused. Roma sees their carnal embrace, and runs out of the house, to the beach—stopping near a large skeleton, which looks like a dinosaur. Upon his return, Roma says he does not want to live with them anymore, that he wants Lilya out of the house—and Lilya cries alone: intelligent and sensitive, and bored and lonely, she has damaged the stability of her home; and she dresses the next morning and leaves the house, walking to the shore.

Vadim, the mayor, meets again with the powerful priest, Arkhierey (Valeriy Grishko); and Vadim seems to have a bad conscience. The priest tells Vadim that all power comes from god, and Vadim has to use his might. Vadim, then, calls Dima for a meeting, Dima who assumes there will be a settlement offer; and Vadim and his men take Dima outside town—the men beat Vadim and leave him. Dima, who has had no positive effect on Kolya’s legal case, and who had an affair with Kolya’s wife, Dima who has failed his friend, takes the train back to Moscow. Kolya continues packing and plans to sell his boat and other things; and he is told that Lilya missed work and cannot be reached by phone. Kolya drinks with Angela and Pacha, thinking that Lilya has gone to Moscow to be with Dima, until her drowned body is found. Kolya is mystified, mystified by his loss of his family property, by his loss of his wife; and Kolya asks, “Why, Lord?” Kolya speaks with a local charitable priest, Father Vasily (Vyacheslav Gonchar), but Father Vasily, who buys bread for others, notes that Kolya has not been observing his religious practices. “Will you ever stop drinking?” Roma asks his father Kolya, who is soon arrested for Lilya’s death (Kolya’s behavior at the picnic, described by friends, is part of the evidence against him). Angela offers to adopt Roma, mentioning his mother, whom she knew and who died when Roma was little. A bulldozer begins demolishing Kolya’s house. A judge reads the decision of the court regarding Lilya’s death: the court rejects Kolya’s request to repeal the guilty verdict; and Kolya is sentenced to fifteen years in prison. His destruction has been achieved simply. The film closes with a beautiful, eloquent mass, presided over by the high priest who counseled Vadim to use his might, Arkhierey (Valeriy Grishko). The mass, attended by Vadim, is held in a new church, on the property where Kolya’s house used to be; and the priest talks about being like Christ, and following god’s truth, defying decadent times; and Vadim admonishes his child to listen and obey; and, not far the new church, the power of nature and time cannot be denied, as the dinosaur bones remain on the beach.

Leviathan

Leviathan had been inspired partly by an American story, that of an automobile repair shop owner who rebelled against zoning ordinances, something which struck the writer-director Andrey Zvyagintsev as resonant with Russian life (the man bulldozed other people’s property, public and private, in retaliation). “The film’s furious mixture of the metaphoric and the actual is quintessentially Russian. Without ever losing its dramatic bearings, the film takes a small-scale conflict in a remote northern township on the Arctic Coast and, by implication, expands it to include all of Russia,” noted Peter Rainer of the Christian Science Monitor (December 31, 2014), appreciating its portrait of rural life as well as political corruption. (However, Rainer thinks the priest Kolya consults is a collaborator of the mayor—a New York Times writer seemed to make the same mistake, and another, thinking that a priest was giving bread to pigs instead of people, suggesting that foreign films and cultures can inspire confusion if not inattention. Rainer attributes the assertion “I believe in facts” to Kolya rather than Dima, something Dima says to Lilya.) Peter Rainer concludes, “It is because Kolya is earthy and jagged-edged that his predicament takes on a larger meaning. He is a man and he is also the yoked soul of Russia fighting for its life in an accusatory universe. Leviathan is, in the widest sense, a horror film.” History is full of horrors. What are the lessons of history? That history betrays logic? That we seek the past to prophesy the future? That we create the past as much as discover it? That we have each other and the earth, nothing else? That our now is tomorrow’s history? That no one is innocent? That it is hard to tell progress from prison?

Some films seem like a glossy dream—other films seem to contain sky and grass, breath and curse, laughter and dirt, gesture and cry, funk and strain, as well as the marble columns, brick walls, wood splinters, and growing mold of a recognizable life. Whatever their terrors, Leviathan and The Student are all too believable depictions of life—we recognize their truth even as they educate us. Is the purpose of education to give us a vision of a civilized and full life? Or to prepare us to conform to society? Is the purpose of education to give us facts and develop our skills and help us to begin to think critically and independently? All that, and more? The Student (2016), based on a Marius von Mayenburg play, was directed by Kirill Serebrennikov, the director of Playing the Victim (2006) and Yuri’s Day (2008)— Kirill Serebrennikov, according to Variety, was put under house arrest in Russia in August 2017, charged with embezzling arts funding (he pleaded innocent). The Student, in other than its acknowledgment of the peculiar limits of Russian society, has an interesting subject: the failure of significant connection and instruction leaves the door open for ideological and religious fanaticism, as the desire for direction and meaning is a genuine one, especially among the young. In Kirill Serebrennikov’s film about a hard-working single mother’s teen son, Venya, the student, the disciple, the self-anointed martyr, becomes a censorious and rebellious religious fanatic. The Student has one foot in realism and another in symbolic surrealism: surrealism—a phenomenon of the early 20th century in France and Spain, before becoming influential internationally—defied descriptions of the real, of the logical and material, by incorporating contradictions of consciousness, dreams, and dissent in the creation of images that become objects, new realities. The motion picture begins in the region of Kaliningrad, with a mother, Inga (Yuliya or Julia Aug), walking through darkness, walking upstairs, exhausted, to an apartment shared with her high school student son, Veniamin Yuzhin, usually called Venya. She, Inga, works three jobs in a state-dominate economy now oriented to profitable commerce rather than communal employment and public utility—she does not need another headache. Once in her apartment, she tells her son immediately that the high school principal Lyudmila Stukalina (Svetlana Bragarnik) called to say that he, Venya (Pyotr Skvortsov), has not been participating in physical education, in gym class, at school. Has Venya, a slim, intense youth, been refusing to swim because Venya is afraid of drowning, shy about his body, or embarrassed about sexual arousal? Venya denies that, mocking her attention, before saying that swimming lessons are against his religion, which his mother thinks an absurdity. “You don’t have a religion,” she says, not knowing that he has been acquiring one.

Guy Lodge, reviewing The Student from Cannes for Variety (May 13, 2016), noted that, “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.”

The Student

The student, Venya Yuzhin (Pyotr Skvortsov), seems disturbed by the partial nudity of swim class, by the bodies of others. Venya jumps into the pool fully clothed, surrounded by young women in bikinis. His mother (Julia Aug) is called to his high school; and she is upset with Venya and with his teachers—she wonders if his is drugged behavior; but she thinks that, as professionals, they should understand him. Mother and son meet with the coach and the teacher, Oleg (Anton Vasilev) and Elena (Viktoriya Isakova), who is a psychologist; and the mother, Inga (Julia Aug), says that she is a single parent with three jobs and that they are there to instruct Venya and should. Mother and son argue between them. More people are called, including the woman principal, Lyudmila Stukalina (Svetlana Bragarnik). Venya reads from religious scripture, his source of authority and principle (there is a portrait of a government leader behind him); and Venya says that he is declaring war on depravity, mentioning the bikinis the girl students wear. The woman principal is sympathetic to the complaint about bikinis—and thinks that a full swimsuit is more in accord with school regulations for appropriate dress. Thus, one person’s conservative values begins to condition the behavior of others. The student_ Venya, an emerging fanatic, befriends a limping boy, Grigoriy or Grisha (Aleksandr Gorchilin), a sweet, often teased boy, for religious rather than personal reasons.

Meanwhile, the coach Oleg (Anton Vasilev) and teacher Elena (Viktoriya Isakova) go out to sunbathe and swim, stopping near large boulders, some kind of man-made concrete forms, not far from where some of their students are sunbathing, without clothes, suggesting natural sensuality, freedom. Elena says that they, administrators and students, must have offended the student_ Venya—the judgmental youth seems to want to hurt them. Elena seems to be trying to figure out what is wrong, saying puberty is a temporary mental disorder, and she does not want it to become permanent; but the coach—as he says—does not care. Elena, the one person who is aware and alert to what may be at stake, the one who does care, will be seen by Venya as his opponent, as someone to be confronted and even destroyed.

Venya (Pyotr Skvortsov) begins to rid his room of material things, of decorations and furnishings, of appliances and comforts—even of wallpaper. Such austerity, attempting an aesthetic and spiritual rigor, can be admirable; and it certainly seems strange, otherworldly. One problem, however, in matters of spiritual discipline and transformation, is when one begins to demand, rather than suggest or ask, of others the same rigor one has chosen for oneself. That is a difference between domination and freedom. Venya’s mother sees what he has done to his room, and is disturbed by the destruction of what she has worked hard to provide him. Venya reads to her from scripture about marriage and adultery, condemning her, her broken marriage; Venya mixes piety with harsh judgment.

Confused and worried, Venya’s mother talks to the high school’s orthodox priest for advice, Father Vsevolod (Nikolay Roshchin), thinking the priest might be a source of this new dedication, but the priest says that he did not influence Venya’s thinking. Venya’s mother thinks this may be a rebellious phase, that Venya is using religion for its power, to be annoying and contrarian rather than spiritual. She says that she would prefer Venya to collect stamps or masturbate, like other boys his age. She is not religious but the priest blesses her, saying the blessing came from god.

Alone, dressed in black T-shirt and black jeans, the slim, short-haired Venya (Pyotr Skvortsov), or Yuhzin as he is called sometimes, seems a repressed figure when the other students are in bathing suits for swim class, a conservative punk. The girls have full swimsuits, not bikinis, and the boys are in swim trunks; and while the others swim, Venya reads. Meanwhile, life goes on, and the concerned and liberal teacher Elena rides a motorcycle to school, and on the way she sees a bareheaded Grisha (Aleksandr Gorchilin), the boy with a leg abnormality (one leg a little shorter than the other), on a motorbike behind his father, and she talks to Grisha about wearing a helmet. For a lesson on human biology, Elena passes out carrots and condoms for a sexual education class, intended to teach the student’s basic protection against sexual diseases; and Venya protests the instruction. Venya, quoting scripture, begins taking off his own clothes: Vegetables have nothing to do with sex, Venya says. Venya in refusing the use of the carrot to demonstrate application of a condom is not refusing an analogy but rather an explanatory device—Lena is using the carrot for its form, not its function; and Venya, while making an illogical leap, accuses his opponent of same. Lena counters that the rules Venya is citing were created two-thousand years ago, and she asserts that this is a new time with new rules. The principal, hearing the commotion, intervenes but reprimands Elena for the lesson. Does a limited circulation of dissent and information in society mean that liberal principle is less tolerable than conservative belief?

The Student

Venya (Pyotr Skvortsov) speaks with the school’s orthodox priest, Father Vsevolod (Nikolay Roshchin), who says he understands Venya’s protest, and that the church needs Venya; and Venya says that he admires the extremism of other religions, of people who kill and die for their religious beliefs. Such a statement—so blunt—should be a warning to the priest—but the priest’s own beliefs may make extremism itself seems less disturbing. Extremism is on a continuum of illogical or superstitious ideas. The priest, who seems not to refer to psychology or science, does acknowledge that Venya might be possessed by demons. However, criticism or opposition does not deter Venya; and Venya, out of piety and pity, invites Grigoriy or Grisha (Aleksandr Gorchilin), the boy with legs of differing lengths, for dinner at home, surprising Venya’s mother, who had cooked for two, not three. Venya is disappointed and irritated by Grisha’s lack of piety, although Grisha does admire Venya for his independence and conviction. Venya beats Grisha, while quoting scripture—which should be a warning to Grisha; but when Venya holds out his hand and encourages him, Grisha accepts. Warnings are ignored. (Does Venya have anything to offer a healthy person; or is his only appeal to someone wounded or damaged?) Grisha is not the only one drawn to Venya—a girl, a fellow student, tells Venya, that she cannot get the image of him naked out of her mind, and that she has been aroused rather than chastened by his talk of sin; and Venya tries to rebuff her, but they do kiss, and then Venya goes on preaching in his classes, with disapproval from teachers—particularly one who seems to be trying to teach Russian economic history.

The coach Oleg (Anton Vasilev) cooks for Elena (Viktoriya Isakova), who has been doing research all week, trying to gain insight into what is happening with Venya, whose public articulations are bad enough—Elena does not know that Venya has been trying through prayer to cure Grisha (Aleksandr Gorchilin) of his congenital leg deformity, asserting that healing depends on the supplicant’s faith (thus healing is a test of Grisha, not of Venya). Grisha takes off his pants, and Venya touches Grisha’s leg and prays, but nothing changes; and Venya doubts Grisha’s faith. Venya refuses the facts of flesh on behalf of the fictions of faith; but why does Venya imagine that he is blessed or chosen, a healer? Has he been vain always, or is that a symptom of his mental illness? Venya, protesting a class on evolution, puts on a gorilla suit: Venya goes to the root of an idea of evolution, of successive developments, to contest it, juxtaposing past and present forms. Yet, when the school principal learns of that, she says that maybe the teacher, Elena, should consult a priest and teach both the theory of divine creation along with the theory of evolution; but Lena answers that only one is scientific. Lena argues against myth, prejudice, and arguments based on appearances. What are the lessons of history? That we can be taught without learning? That independence leads to both creativity and isolation? That risk leads to freedom or loss? That tragedy is a conflict between virtues? That reconciliation is resisted but is the true reward?

In the Village Voice (Feb 8, 2018), film critic Bilge Ebiri said of The Student, “When I first saw The Student at Cannes, it seemed to be a pretty effective allegory of the slow slide toward religious authoritarianism in Russia. But over the ensuing year or so, the film started to feel less like a metaphor and more like a prophecy. For at its heart, The Student’s film, based on German playwright Marius von Mayenburg’s 2012 drama, The Martyr, is about this concept we’ve come to call ‘normalization’—the process by which the most extreme, most unthinkable ideas somehow become an acceptable part of the discourse, thanks to their insistent, aggressive repetition, and the cowardice of others. Watching it again now, I don’t see a movie about Russia anymore. I see a movie about the nightmare we’re all currently living in.” Art educates and entrances but does not by itself change social conditions or political conditions; however, it can make it difficult for us to deny the evidence of our eyes and other senses, or the intensity of our emotions.

Is Elena ((Viktoriya Isakova) alone in her genuine commitment to knowledge and education? Are the school principal and her close associates committed to principle, to reason and science, to education; or to bureaucracy, conformity, power? The principal and her school associates drink together, getting drunk, and one puts on Venya’s gorilla mask as another sings a song about wrists bound in handcuffs, a simply surreal moment, the kind of private moment one does not observe usually but might suspect exists. (Surrealism is an explosive response to totalitarian order, suggesting that such order is itself an enforced hallucination, a violation of preferred purposes, principles, and pleasures.) Oleg (Anton Vasilev), the coach in a relationship with Elena, thinks that Elena is becoming obsessed with religion in her attempt to understand Venya and prepare arguments to counter his assertions: Oleg (Vasilev) says that Elena is like a doctor who is snorting cocaine to test it; and he, feeling confused, neglected, and repelled, leaves her.

Venya (Pyotr Skvortsov) has a vision of a crucified man in a loin cloth—himself? It seems to be a waking hallucination. Yet, Venya plans to go further: Venya wants to terrify on behalf of his devotion. Will the world follow? Grisha (Aleksandr Gorchilin), at school, interrupting a chore, suggests the two, Grisha and Venya, have another healing session; and the infatuated Grisha removes his pants so Venya can touch and heal his leg. Venya prays, and Grisha hugs him; and the girl who kissed Venya comes in and mocks them both—she and Venya argue, and the girl hits him. Venya continues his spiritual mission, following his vision, and Venya begins building a large wood cross. (Symbols organize—create, contest, reveal, reverse—meaning; and a suffering Christ is a symbol of sacrifice but Venya intends to sacrifice not himself but others.) Venya, while preparing his large cross, refers to his father; and his mother thinks he is referring to his biological father rather than his divine father. Venya brings the cross to school. Elena (Viktoriya Isakova) protests placing the cross there, and the two argue about the place of Jews in relation to god. Venya sees Elena as an enemy; and when drinking alcohol with Grisha, talks about constructing a possible accident for Elena. The tolerant Grisha thinks of that as boyish aggression, indulgent imagination; and Grisha angers Venya when Grisha kisses Venya—Venya speaks of abomination. Grisha thinks the planned accident is all talk, that Venya cannot kill, but Grisha is wrong. When Venya has another meeting with his mother and school authorities, that is, the principal, priest, and teachers, including Elena and Oleg, the priest reads a critique of contemporary culture and its idols, of science. The principal laughs at the priest’s anti-Semitic quotation, part of a crazy, drifting session, until Venya accuses Elena of having touched him, a sexual insinuation that is treated seriously. In suggesting molestation, a lie that larger social narratives of exploitive sexuality and violated youth have made listenable, believable, Venya creates a snare, a scandal, for Lena. With a picture of Putin in the room, Elena (Viktoriya Isakova) critiques authoritarianism, spiritual and political; but Elena goes too far when she slaps Venya, and she is fired by the principal. Elena has a vision of Grisha warning her of danger: Lena, in imagining Grisha, is listening to a deeper intuition, a spiritual (rather than religious) connection. Elena refuses to leave the school, saying that she, a genuine educator, belongs there—and Elena is right, but does anyone else know that? (DG, July 2018)

This article was submitted on July 2018

Daniel Garrett, a child of the American south, Louisiana, where he grew up reading, taking photographs, and enjoying fishing and a good summer barbecue. Daniel moved to New York and became a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, and organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon. Long interested in human complexity, intelligence, experiment, and cultural diversity, Garrett has researched various cultures, and he wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. His work has appeared as well in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics. He returned to the south, where he worked on philosophical fiction, the novel A Stranger on Earth.

Volume 26, Issue 3-4 / April 2022 Film Reviews   andrey zvyagintsev   russian cinema   russian literature   vladimir putin  

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