A LITTLE knowledge is a dangerous thing, as a new Russian film, The Student (Cert. 15), clearly demonstrates.
Pyotr Skvortsov plays a teenager, Veniamin (Venya), who suddenly goes all religious. No explanation is ever offered, but we can surmise from his behaviour that frustration and anger play a significant part; and the Bible provides him with plenty of texts to justify the stance that he takes on society in general and bikinis in particular.
Like many a fundamentalist, Venya seizes only on the curses and threats in scripture. His first quote is Hosea 13.16 (”Samaria shall become desolate, for she has rebelled against her God. . .”), but the teenager ignores the prophet’s ultimate message of divine compassion and forgiveness. He arrogantly dismisses the Orthodox priest’s biblical expertise. “You’ve created a convenient God,” he says. Yet one senses a grain of truth in Venya’s accusation.
The director Kirill Serebrennikov’s protagonist may occasionally seem to be a metaphorical challenge to the collusion of Church and State in Russia, but the film’s themes are more universal. The Student was a German play (Martyr), subsequently transposed to an English setting for its London staging. It skilfully exposes a spiritual malaise running from the Urals to Yeovil. When we are not just keeping our heads down, ignoring any self-destructive tendencies, meaning is sought in unreflective trivialities or scapegoating.
Venya’s cry for help is finding a worthier cause. In the absence of one, he resorts to devastating activities and turns into a fanatic, who sees Elena (Viktorya Isakova), his biology teacher, as arch-enemy. Unsupported by others, she contests his theological illiteracy; but refuting putting forward alternative texts isn’t enough.
What needs to be confronted are the contradictions in the boy’s behaviour and outlook, such as his earlier protests about female students’ revealing swimwear and then his disruption of a sex-education class by stripping naked. He lies, swears, lacks respect, incites violence, and is anti-Semitic and misogynist. His sole disciple is Grisha (Aleksandr Gorchilin), a fellow-student bullied for his disability and with an overriding need to belong.
You may think that the religious certainties of a crazy mixed-up-kid would not be tolerated. His bewildered mother, holding down three jobs, blames the school. Incredibly, the teachers seem unaware of the radicalisation occurring in their midst.
The more frightening aspects of this tour de force are that we ourselves already inhabit a culture where huge lies go unrecognised, false certainties are swallowed, and fear becomes an instrument with which to deflect blame; and, because our own biblical literacy is in disrepair, we don’t have the tools to discern when our current social values are at odds with overall truth.
Serebrennikov is himself a Buddhist, hesitant about religions that give answers rather than ask questions. Venya opts for lazy dogma, typifying the unconscious need for strong leadership and to avoid thinking for oneself. Elena, alone, literally takes a stand. The film is a clear invitation to do likewise.
BITTER HARVEST (Cert. 15) is an English-language film set during the Holodomor, Stalin’s genocidal starvation policy that resulted in the death of between seven and ten million Ukrainian peasants.
Life may have been hard under the Tsar, but we are told that it was pleasurable. Yuri (Max Irons) has a tranquil upbringing, which holds him in good stead before he learns that “dragons are real and evil roams the earth.” Come the Revolution, draconian collectivisation wreaks suffering of epic proportions. As an aspiring artist, Yuri finds ways of transcending the misery. He and his village community put their trust in an icon of St Yuri (St George). “They can never break your spirit,” he tells his childhood sweetheart, Natalka (Samantha Barks). That may be so, but it’s a damned close-run thing.
The villain of the piece has ultimately to be Stalin, played here by Gary Oliver, who sees Ukraine as Russia’s bread basket, to be beaten into submission. But it is Sergei (Tamar Hassan), the local commissar, who mercilessly has to represent the human face of Power. He may ransack churches for their precious artefacts and murder their priests, but he also fancies Natalka. In a Christ-like moment, she washes his feet and dries them with her hair, only to discover his Achilles’ heel. Apparently, it’s Sergei’s gigantic mother complexes that lie at the root of his wickedness. It is all a bit facile, but the nearest the film gets to understanding how evil prospers.
Inevitably, Yuri will be compared with Doctor Zhivago (1965). The director, George Mendeluk, admits: “My archetype for the role was Omar Sharif.” The scene where a pair of spectacles is crushed underfoot is straight out of that film. In equal measure, though, Mendeluk was inspired by Tarkovsky’s 1966 film Andrei Rublev, in which the artist acts as a “detector of infinity”. When Yuri eventually goes to art school in Moscow, his teacher encourages him to dream dreams. “[Soviet] reality is the enemy.” Faith battles it out, at quite a price, with Marxist-Leninist materialism.
It is sometimes suggested that the ethereal nature of Orthodoxy weakened its ability to resist state persecution except through large-scale martyrdom. Viewers with some knowledge of Russian mysticism, however, may well see within Bitter Harvest how for Orthodoxy evil must first be known, not avoided. Through participation and understanding comes the possibility of transfiguration. Hence passive resistance is key to much of the spirituality displayed in the film.
There are exceptions. Sword in hand, Terence Stamp is Yuri’s grandfather, a man in whom resides both priest and soldier. Liturgically burying the dead and yet also engaging in armed resistance seem entirely compatible to him. When Yuri does resort to violent opposition, he quickly realises the futility of defeating their oppressors that way. The dilemma is whether to stick it out or try to escape. The relevance to contemporary refugee issues is immediate. We may also gain an understanding of how what happened to their ancestors at the hands of Russian invaders informs present-day Ukrainians’ perceptions.
IT IS often puzzling what triggers memories, whether one is awake or asleep. Sweet Dreams (Cert. 12A) is a metaphysical, almost Proustian, exploration of particularly vivid past times — a Cinema Paradiso for this angst-ridden century as Massimo (Valerio Mastandrea), a forty-something journalist, returns to empty the family’s Turin apartment.
We are immediately plunged into flashbacks of an idyllic childhood – typified by the nine-year-old dancing with his mother (Barbara Ronchi). Soon after, she dies, and even at that tender age Massimo is uncertain why. His questioning ranges from wanting physical details (”a heart attack”, he’s told) to asking a priest where she is now. Heaven, the place of eternal light, comes the reply. The film centres on Massimo’s quest to discover that light, to be with his mother again.
Memories, of course, are subjective, partial, and potentially unreliable accounts. Things aren’t always as good as we recall their being. The director Marco Bellocchio has spent a lifetime making films that re-examine what passes for truth. His 1971 In the Name of the Father is a polemical assault, if not on Christianity, then certainly on ecclesiastical authoritarianism. A stringent Roman Catholic upbringing and time as a philosophy student have played their part in Bellocchio’s search for the meaning of life.
In a telling scene in Sweet Dreams, the teenage Massimo’s teacher, Father Abisso (Roberto Herlitzka), moves from science to philosophy in considering the origins of the universe. Ultimately, he says, God is our only hope . . . even if he isn’t there. Massimo presses him on how to resolve this mystery. “The only way to get an answer is to keep asking the question,” Abisso says. It feels as if this is what Bellocchio has been doing throughout his career.
When other comforts seem blocked, Massimo entreats Belfagor, the demon mentioned in the Book of Numbers, to help him cope with his extended time of grief. Yet the pain continues, and his desperation escalates. He attends a mass, repeatedly going forward to receive the Host as many times as possible. On another occasion, he enters a darkened church and switches on every lamp that he can find, in an attempt at reaching the heavenly light where his mother resides.
Abisso counsels him to change his life script from “If my mother hadn’t died, life would be sweet” to “Despite my mother dying, life can be sweet.” Let go and let God.
This may include historical reappraisal, surrendering an idealised vision of his mother for someone whose goodness and love were more flawed than he had chosen to remember. By sanctifying her, Massimo had left no emotional space in which to be loved by anyone else. It is an exhilarating moment when, for the first time since the opening shots, he dances — this time with Elisa (Bérénice Bejo), the doctor who has helped him to discard past hurts.
Bellocchio, a professed atheist, finally gives us a parable in which the mother represents the hiddenness of God, who, despite the anxiety it causes, must take his leave of us before human flourishing can become a real possibility.