Cinematic Releases: I Am the Good Shepherd: The Student (2017)

Though I grew up religious, Christian to be exact, my questioning nature led me to transition to atheism in my early twenties. I understand what it feels like to be swept up in the throes of religious fervor--although I occasionally felt euphoric, more often I felt scared because I was questioning the theology that was being presented to me. Religion often is a safety net for people who are confused or unsure of their own individuality and they use it to fill whatever void they may have in their life. In the Russian film, The Student, director Kirill Serebrennikov examines the seductive hold that doctrine can have on a young and impressionable mind.

Veniamin Yuzhin (Pyotr Skvortsov) is a student in an contemporary Russian school and he has trouble fitting in with his peers. He starts to obsessively read the Bible which slowly but surely changes his personality for the worst. His mother is unable to connect with him and he is extremely sanctimonious with other students at the school. When he isn't haughtily spouting off Bible verses during his swimming class, he is disrupting the school in a myriad of other ways. Yuzhin especially clashes with Elena (Viktoriya Isakova), a progressive biology teacher who resists his preaching at every turn. The conflict between them is intense, which is exacerbated by the school board's continual acquiescence to Yuzhin's insane demands. Skvortsov is dark and commanding with his portrayal of a religious zealot gone mad and his occasional outbursts when his conviction is challenged are chilling. Elena eventually falls under the spell of his influence and becomes obsessed with taking him down. In this way they are two sides of the same coin, both drowning in the waters of their own compulsions. It's hard to see at first, but there is a gossamer thin thread of pitch-black humor running through this film as well.

The cinematography is elegant and beautiful with a somber, almost oppressive cool-toned color palette. Many scenes are filmed close-up making the viewer feel stifled and claustrophobic, which in turn makes the wide shots feel like a breath of fresh air. There is some subtle religious iconography used, but for a film about religion they don't stray too far into that territory. I liked how everything was kept fairly realistic--this could be a documentary in an alternate universe and addresses issues that are pertinent today. Ilya Demutsky's score is understated and is comprised of a solo violin dancing nervously on top of the more intense scenes.

A slight negative is at times it can seem somewhat overdramatic and theatrical, but it was based on a play so it still has vestiges of its origins clinging to the edges. Elena is a bit hysterical at times and it can be hard to emphasize with her as the protagonist, but ultimately that is what makes her the most human. The Student is a cautionary tale about what can happen when religious beliefs are allowed to go too far.

--Michelle Kisner