The Student review: a timely reminder of how religion is used to subjugate others

An unhinged adolescent and his theological rants cause havoc at a state school in this chilling Cannes prize-winner from Kirill Serebrennikov

The Student
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Director: Kirill Serebrennikov
Cert: Club
Genre: Drama
Starring: Petr Skvortsov, Victoria Isakova, Julia Aug, Alexandr Gorchilin, Alexandra Revenko, Anton Vasiliev, Svetlana Bragarnik, Irina Rudnitskaya, Nikolai Roschin
Running Time: 1 hr 53 mins

Political allegory has a long and distinguished history in Soviet era cinema, a rich seam that continues to be mined by such fine practitioners as Andrey Zvyagintsev (The Banishment, Leviathan), Yuriy Bykov (The Mayor, The Fool) and Kirill Serebrennikov.

With strong and welcome echoes of echoes of Miloš Forman Czechoslovakian oeuvre, Serebrennikov's big-screen adaptation of Marius von Mayenburg's incendiary play Martyr, sees trouble teen Veniamin (the remarkable Petr Skvortsov) rebel against authority figures by quoting liberally from the Bible.

His literal interpretation of that book entails the wrecking of soft furnishings and wallpaper at home, much the chagrin of his exasperated mum (Julia Aug). Meanwhile, his school life is characterised by fundamentalist demands - no more bikinis at the pool - and increasingly scary disturbances. But this is Russia, where in 2013, president Vladimir Putin passed a bill enforcing mandatory religious education in all state schools. Thus, Veniamin’s teachers are cowed by his fervent religiosity and (possibly) their own.

It falls to the school science teacher Elena Lvovna (Victoria Isakova) to speak out against the unhinged adolescent and his theological rants. Unhappily, she is but a voice in the wilderness: when he trashes the classroom while wearing a monkey suit in order to denounce the theory of evolution, his tantrum is humoured by others who speak the dread notion: “Why don’t we teach the alternative?” What’s worse, Veniamin’s clashes with Elena soon take on a sinister anti-Semitic dimension.


Arriving hot on the heels of right-wing mass murderer Anders Breivik latest legal appeal, and just as venery of Tuam apologists resort to the "fake news" defence, this chilling exploration of how freedom of religious expression can be used to subjugate others could not be more timely. With shades of Hogg's Confessions of a Justified Sinner, Serebrennikov fashions a chilling warning from a surreal premise. The strange paradox of watching a Bible-bashing punk is made all the more discombobulating by accompanying sounds of Slovenian industrial metal band Laibach's God Is God.

The Student, which rightly took home the François Chalais Prize from Un Certain Regard section at Cannes last year, is careful to reference Veniamin's twisted biblical references with numbered verses onscreen. Vladislav Opelyants' fluid cinematography and Ekaterina Scheglova's carefully-constructed everyday production design help emphasis the insidiousness of the titular antihero's brand of evil.

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic