I want to like the Russian film industry, I really do. Often they have the goods: talented direction, great cinematography, and music, even decent acting. But the "artsy Russian film" has one key problem: over there, the good guys are winning the culture war. That means the only way to be counter-cultural and edgy in Russia is to join the Pussy Riot faction and make movies that critique tradition, religion, and morals.
The Student (2016), a recent prizewinning art-house film directed by Kirill Serebrennikov and based on Marius von Mayenburg's play Märtyrer, is just this sort of tantalizing but disappointing project. In Russian, the title of the film is (M)uchenik, a play on words between "The Martyr" and "The Student." Like other films in this genre such as Leviathan (2014) and The Fool (2014), The Student has a great opportunity to get "under the hood" of Russia's traditionalist Christian revival...but chooses to take cheap shots at the Russian spirit instead.
Serebrennikov's black comedy follows the coming-of-age and spiritual awakening of a young high schooler named Veniamin Yuzhin (Pyotr Skvortsov) who attends a state school in present-day Kaliningrad. A loner and outcast, the story opens with him seated, fully clothed, beside a pool where all his classmates are salaciously cavorting in trunks and bikinis for P.E. swim class. In his hand, he holds a copy of the Bible, which he reads and memorizes in earnest. He refuses to swim with the others, it is revealed, because the book of Leviticus forbids immodest attire. His mother is sure that he is just shy and embarrassed of his pubescent body. Venya protests that he has a religious objection.
The administration of the school refuses to take Venya seriously at first, but his earnest and impressive citation of scripture catches them off guard, and they are forced to admit that perhaps putting half-naked teenagers together in a pool is inappropriate as a high school policy. The energetic Yuzhin is encouraged by this success and undertakes a program of reform that he hopes will reshape the culture of his high school and bring about moral contrition in his fellow students. In sex ed class, he tears off all his clothes in protest that if they are going to learn sex, they might as well learn it for real. In biology class, he leaps from desk to desk dressed in a monkey costume to satirize the teacher's promotion of Darwinian evolution. Like an Old Testament prophet, Veniamin wins over even the most secular of teachers and students with his charisma and ability to speak truth to power. At each outburst, the administration concedes a little more and a little more.
A number of one-on-one confrontations unfold throughout the course of the story. A crippled young freshman named Grigoriy wishes to follow Venya as a healer and teacher; he is revealed to be a homosexual with lustful designs. The class slut who mocks Venya's puritanism is rebuked and changes her ways; later, it is revealed that this was only a ploy to seduce the now-popular Class Prophet. The school priest is impressed by Venya's faith; he becomes puzzled and eventually worried that Veniamin's fundamentalism oversteps the boundaries set by Orthodox Church doctrine. The school's most liberal teacher, a secular Jewish feminist, begins studying scripture so she can fight Yuzhin on his own turf; instead of being converted by her reading, she becomes obsessed and literally crucifies herself with a nail gun in the final act.
The Student follows its titular character down a path of undeniable perdition, yet equally undeniable is how fun the young reactionary is to watch. When his mother calls him out for being too rigid, Venya strikes back: "You got a divorce. Christ says that you are a whore and your soul is damned to hell." When his biology teacher tries to have him expelled, he strikes back again: "You are Jewish! You killed Jesus Christ. Now you are coming after me." When Venya begins to commit crimes, the moral of the story becomes clear: religion begets violence, and the only way to ensure peace is moral relativism.
Unfortunately, a promising plot dissolves into a tiresome social commentary about how the Russian people are not liberal enough. No quarter is given to important questions: where does a reactionary like Venya come from? What conditions give rise to his search for meaning through religious fundamentalism? Nor does the film allow for important distinctions. Every authentic Christian must be an evil fanatic, and every moral claim must dissolve in hypocrisy and ambiguity.
These are very old tropes in Hollywood cinema, which seems a fitting synecdoche for the major shortcoming of most Russian films I have seen this decade. Rather than creating something new and uniquely Russian as a response to their own social climate, Muscovite filmmakers parrot the liberal platitudes of Hollywood, seeing in their own Christian revival a parallel to the "moral majority" resurgence of 1980s America. But stale, recycled liberalism will not purge the Russian traditionalist impulse, nor will western degeneracy tempt the Russian soul beyond what it can bear. If "gotcha" liberalism is the best that leftover Russian atheists can muster, perhaps this truly will be the Orthodox century.