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Entries in Russian Cinema (2)

Saturday
May142016

THE STUDENT

Stars: Pyotr Skvortsov, Viktoriya Isakova, Yuliya Aug, Aleksandra Revenko, Nikolai Roshin, Svetlana Bragarnik and Aleksandr Gorchilin.
Writer: Kirill Serebrennikov; based upon the play Martyr by Marius von Mayenburg.
Director: Kirill Serebrennikov

Screening in Un Certain Regard at 69th Festival du Cannes; reviewed at the Salles Debussy.

Rating: 4/5

Fervent creationism faces off against wide-eyed Darwinism amidst the already volatile environment of high school life in Kirill Serebrennikov’s chilling psychological drama, The Student. The Russian auteur’s journey into the dark recesses of a fanatical mindset provides religious extremism with a truly terrifying façade – the unbridled and fearless arrogance of a disenfranchised teenage boy.

Serebrennikov (Yuri’s Day, 2008; Betrayal, 2012) offers up a compelling microcosm of the faith-vs-fact debate that has grown in intensity and ferocity around the world in recent decades. That he also bolsters his narrative with themes such as teenage sexuality, institutional bias and agenda, free speech and Oedipal issues proves both ambitious and intellectually engrossing. The melding of the director’s storytelling skill and playwright Marius von Mayenburg’s stageplay proves a match made in…well, it’s a good match.

The titular protagonist is Veniamin Yuzhin (the remarkable Pyotr Skvortsov), a lean, surly teenage boy living with his struggling single-mom (Yuliya Aug). In a pre-credit sequence, he seems to be remarking with typical teenage disengagement that he wants out of his school’s mandatory swimming lessons on “religious grounds.” Only after he is taunted by the bikini-clad mean girl Lidiya (Aleksandra Revenko) and ends up submerged beneath the bodies of his classmates do we learn of his spiritual will; the young man lives an existence devoted to the Bible scriptures, each memorised and instantly recalled, often with a cruel bitterness capable of levelling any counterpoint.

Soon, the school body is energised and enraged by Veniamin’s outbursts, none more so than biology teacher Elena (Viktoriya Isakova) who finds both her devotion to scientific study and faith-free middle-class life the target of the teenage evangelist’s wrath. In one ferocious sequence, Veniamin’s reacts to a carrot-and-condom sex education lesson by stripping bare and leaping from table to table, citing verse after verse of the scripture’s stance on love, sex and marriage. The passages cited begin to take on deeply anti-social views, be they homophobic, anti-semitic or just plain hypocritical; the foreboding sense that Veniamin’s crusade is about to turn irreparably destructive mounts with tangible tension.

With the school administration towing both the Kremlin’s line on religious education (in 2013, President Putin made the teaching of faith-based culture compulsory in secondary schools) and allowing for their own beliefs to affect their handling of Veniamin’s and Elena’s conflict, the scourge of religious extremism leads to an inevitably chaotic and tragic conclusion. The filmmaker leaves no doubt as to the role that unwavering and literal devotion to the written word of God plays in his narrative; Serebrennikov is not the type of director to create this vivid, scorched landscape of complex morality and biblical scale and then not take a stand.

As rich in allegorical intent as the very best of Russian cinema, The Student will ignite post-screening debate as it traverses the global festival circuit. Religious devotion at the expense of the very humanity it purports to enrich is endemic to every faith-based society; the existence of Kirill Serebrennikov’s frantic, frightening film will help to generate crucial discussion on the true nature of dogmatic fundamentalism the world over.

Friday
Nov072014

STALINGRAD 3D

Stars: Mariya Smolnikova, Yanina Studilina, Thomas Kretschmann, Pyotr Fyodorov, Sergey Bondarchuk, Dmitriy Lysenkov, Andrey Smolyakov, Aleksey Barabash, Heiner Lauterbach and Oleg Volku.
Writers: Sergey Snezhkin, Ilya Tilkin.
Director: Fedor Bondarchuk.

Screening courtesy of the 2014 Russian Revolution Film Festival.

Rating: 2.5/5

As David Ayer’s Fury, featuring Brad Pitt and a tank full of combat movie stereotypes rolls through Australian cinemas, so to does Russian cinema’s own equally grand and cornball World War II melodrama, Stalingrad. Despite some stunningly realised technical work, Fedor Bondarchuk’s action-packed opus creaks under a rigidly antiquated narrative that bears a far closer pedigree to Michael Bay’s fanciful Pearl Harbour than Steven Spielberg’s gritty standard-bearer, Saving Private Ryan.

At US$30million (and with Columbia Pictures international distribution arm attached), it is one of largest production’s ever undertaken by the Russian film sector. Yet scripters Sergey Snezhkin’s and Ilya Tilkin’s dialogue and drama never come close to matching the visuals crafted by Bondarchuk’s production design team. Topped-and-tailed by an expensive Japanese earthquake sequence so as to create an unnecessary flashback device, audiences are then plunged into Stalingrad 1942, specifically a section of the city that has been cut-off after the German troops ignite vast fuel supplies (the sight of Russian troops bursting through walls of flame, fully ablaze and impervious to pain, gives an early indication as to the purely cinematic degree of heroism to be expected over the next 2 hours.)

Holed up in the crumbling remnants of a once opulent tenancy are five rugged, chummy Russian soldiers, led by the scowling, war-weary Gromov (Pyotr Fyodorov). Much like the societal cross-section represented by Pitt’s tank-crew, Gromov’s men are all types yet act as one; they find one more thing to bond over in the form of 18 year-old Katya (Mariya Smolnikova), a doe-eyed and determined lass who also happens to be a crack-shot with a telescopic sniper’s rifle.

The German forces are represented by Kapitan Kahn (Thomas Kretschmann, Europe’s hammiest leading man; see Dario Argento’s Dracula 3D), who keeps the pretty blonde peasant Masha (Yanina Studilina) hidden away to rape at his whim while also falling in love with her, and Khenze (Heiner Lauterbach), the bald tyrant of a head officer, who spits out some of the film’s unintentionally funniest lines (“These damn lice can’t even let a man die without making him itch.”)

Battles scenes are suitably brutal, as befitting one of the most bloody conflicts in modern military history, but are shot in such purely cinematic terms they barely suggest the real-world horrors soldiers from either side would have faced. Slow-motion hand-to-hand combat, complete with CGI blood-splatter (ala, 300) and ‘bullet-cam’ (ala, The Matrix) are used and re-used; one sequence, in which the Russian’s bounce a shell off a tank hull with pinpoint accuracy, is just plain stupid.

The director lathers his brave infantrymen in a warm, nationalistic glow, which is admirable but also detrimental; so one-dimensionally heroic are his band of brothers, audience connect as they would with a ‘James Bond’ or ‘Indiana Jones’ type. One should walk away exhausted and deeply moved by the courage these men displayed in the face of a tyrannical force. Instead, Fedor Bondarchuk's bloody battle epic celebrates the excesses of war cinema far more effectively than it does the heroism of his countrymen