School can be a difficult time for everyone. The awkwardness of puberty, seemingly insurmountable social hierarchies, fathoming out what beliefs you hold, grappling with school rules that seem to make no sense. All of this is true for The Student’s teenage protagonist Veniamin, but don’t be fooled: this isn’t your typical coming-of-age tale.
Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov invites a viewer into Veniamin’s fevered mind, a place where teenage angst and Christian zealotry form a potent cocktail. We first meet the young man in his mother’s apartment, where she confronts him for skiving off swimming lessons at school. When Veniamin asks his mother if she can write a letter to excuse him from swimming because of his religious beliefs, she laughs this off. Little does she know that her son is not, as she believes, taking drugs but deadly serious about his newfound religious conviction.
At school, Veniamin begins to resist a variety of status quos. From the “immodest” attire allowed during swimming lessons, to lessons in safe sex, to the teaching of evolutionary theory, Veniamin’s disdain towards all that he deems immoral burgeons. Biblical quotations flood from his mouth from the home to the classroom to the street; everywhere his preaching ground, everyone a soul to be saved. This becomes all the more insidious when Veniamin takes an unpopular and impressionable disabled student under his wing, with promises to “cure” his disability through prayer.
One of the key ways The Student diverges from a typical narrative of teenage rebellion is the way in which its protagonist begins to exert influence over the authority figures in his life. With the leverage of the Bible and his fundamentalist interpretations, Veniamin’s relentless evangelising strikes a chord with the traditional values many of the adults around him purport to hold. Rather than become a problem child for his family or his school, differing opinions on the boy pit figures of authority against one another, as disputes over religion and morality proliferate.
Serebrennikov’s adaptation of German playwright Marius von Mayenburg’s Märtyrer is a powerful parable on the dangers of religious fundamentalism, the impressionability of an enigmatic figure, and the pains of adolescence.Find your cinema and book tickets