Sunday, 22 January 2017

The Student (4½ Stars)

God is God.

You shall see Hell all clear in the sky,
You shall see darkness,
You shall see good and evil,
You shall see city walls crumble and towers fall.

God is God.

You shall see the Lord of Life and Death,
You shall see Heaven in Hell,
You shall be blinded by light,
You shall see darkness.

God is God.

You shall see the walls crumble,
Walls built of pain,
And above the cries of man
Hear one voice saying

"I am Alpha and Omega,
The beginning and the end,
I am the first
And I am the last".

God is God.

You shall see Hell,
You shall see evil,
You shall see darkness,
You shall see sorrow,
You shall see death,
You shall see

God is God.

This is a fascinating Russian film about a teenage boy, presumably 16-ish, who has suddenly become a fanatical Christian. Maybe the change itself wasn't so sudden, but it was abruptly discovered by the people around him who were too blinded by their own interests to see what had been happening to him. If they'd loved him they might have seen his interest in religion developing and guided him in a different direction.

Venya's mother is a single parent. She works hard, doing three jobs to feed herself and her son. The first she hears of the problems is when the school rings her to tell her that Venya has been staying away from swimming lessons. He tells his mother it's because he's a Christian and he finds it immoral that the girls in his class wear tiny bikinis, enticing men to sin. At first the teacher thinks he's pretending to be religious to disrupt class, and his mother thinks he has a psychological disorder because of her divorce, but it soon becomes obvious that the religious conversion is genuine. Throughout the film more than half of what he says is Biblical quotes. The film kindly shows the Bible reference in the top corner of the screen whenever it's a quote.

Venya demands that the school change to adapt to his beliefs. As well as demanding that the swimming lessons are carried out in more appropriate clothing, he protests against the teaching of the evolution theory and sexual education. The only person who listens to him is his best friend Grischa.

The teachers react to him in different ways. The school's orthodox priest respects Venya's religiousness and wants him to join his church. The headmistress has vague religious beliefs and tries to meet Venya halfway. Venya's teacher is an atheist, but she sees that the only way to argue with Venya is on his own grounds, so she spends weeks studying the Bible to find verses that contradict his extremist beliefs.

The film is both shocking and fascinating. As a viewer I was torn between sympathising with Venya and despising him. He's a much too complicated character for me to take one side or the other. My main criticism is that towards the end of the film he shows traits of hypocrisy. I don't think this would happen in a boy like him. What I mean is, people who grow up in a religion, Christian or otherwise, are often hypocrites, because they follow their religion as a tradition, assuming it's correct rather than feeling true inner devotion. A person like Venya who discovers Christianity outside of the church would be compelled to faithfully follow what he believes to be right.

"The Student" isn't a film that's easy to write about. It's a film that needs to be discussed. I hope to receive comments from my readers, especially those with strong religious convictions.

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