Veniamin (Pyotr Skvortsov) a high school student begins preaching the bible to his fellow students, teachers, friends and family after he is confronted about missing swimming classes at school. As time passes, and Veniamin becomes ever more passionate, he begins to butt heads with his biology teacher Elena (Viktoriya Isakova), to dangerous and explosive ends.
The Student is a rather frightening look at what happens, in reality, when people are confronted with zealots and fundamental religious belief. Pyotr Skvortsov and Viktoriya Isakova lead the cast as the two who constantly clash over Veniamin’s religious beliefs. Skvortsov makes the young Veniamin a violent, confrontational and prevocational character, especially when he deals with his biology teacher, who he is constantly trying to goad a response out of. Skvortsov also makes the character charismatic, in an idiosyncratic way, and it is easy to see why people are drawn to him. Viktoriya Isakova, as biology teacher Elena, comes off as the voice of reason in the film, where everyone else coddles the young boy and tries to be understanding about his sudden turn to religion. Isakova makes the character frustrated but smart, as she tries to understand just what is going on with the student who is so desperate to antagonise her. The rest of the cast features Yuliya Aug, Irina Rudniktskaya and Aleksandra Revenko.
Kirill Serebrennikov and Marius von Mayenburg’s screenplay, on the surface, looks as though it is a simple clash between religion and atheism, but there is more at play in the film, as it is never quite clear if Veniamin is trying to rattle the established system and see what shakes loose, or if there is an earnestness and truth to his seemingly self taught, rabid belief. As director, Marius von Mayenburg keeps the audience on their toes, swinging between empathising with this fundamentalist child, and being frustrated by him. The performances in the film are earnest and engaging, but there are times when the pacing of the film struggles, and the constant antagonistic behaviour from Veniamin begins to grate, and feels as though it is repetitive.
In all, however, The Student is a powerful look at what happens when two ideologies meet, and one will not move or even listen to opposing beliefs. Pyotr Skvortsov and Viktoriya Isakova are strong in their leading roles, and although the pacing struggles from time to time, the open ending of the film leaves the audience with much to ponder.