The Student / Disciple (2016)

You don’t really seen that many extreme Christian fundamentalist movies being made, now do you? That alone makes this a particularly interesting picture to watch, but when you also add the overtly cynical and pessimistic Russian bent to it, it becomes a must-see.

The story is rather simple one, a troubled Russian teenage boy named Veniamin has found religion, but rather than this being the final step in an uplifting story about redemption or salvation via faith like you might seen in a random episode of Touched by an Angel, we get a morbid tale of populism and abusing religion for your own gains with violent results. As only fitting for a opportunistic villain, Veniamin begins his crusade by protesting something rather mundane and safe, something that at a glance might even sound reasonable, namely the school’s very loose dress code for the PE swimming class. Painting himself as a righteous defender of virtue fighting the overtly decadent  corruption of the modern day culture that allows girls to wear overtly sexualized and skimpy bikinis at gym class, Veniamin weaponizes his newly found religious zeal and begins demanding that the school forces everyone to wear more modest swimming attire. Rather than Veniamin’s sole voice of protest being unceremoniously dismissed, to everyone’s surprise the school decides to instead fully give into Veniamin’s demands. And with that, the Pandora’s Box is opened and the reign of religious terror is let loose. The old proverb “you give the devil your little finger, you will be taken entirely” is also quickly proven true, after having had his first taste of victory and seeing his beliefs being fully vindicated by the school, Veniamin’s ambitions and boldness keep growing stronger until his disruptive behavior has escalated to a point where nothing at the school is safe anymore.

As Veniamin’s actions start to gain traction and popularity at the school, to a point where even the school’s own administration staff is actively shown to turn a blind eye to his actions, it is left to his biology teacher Elena to be the sole voice of reason and opposition to Veniamin. And interestingly, this is where the movie suddenly starts to become sort of Kafkaesque. Rather than being able to effectively fight Veniamin’s influence like you would expect from an adult in a place of power and equipped with more life experience and education, her standing and authority at the school actually begins to erode instead. This even goes as far as extending to her personal life when her boyfriend, the school’s gym teacher, ends up being alienated from their relationship to a point where he finally dumps her due to her active interest in Veniamin. Ironically Elena is the only one  who throughout the movie consistently shows any genuine concern and interest in Veniamin’s outbursts and tries to understand him. Other people quickly just give up and try to ignore it to the best of their abilities or just turn completely passive and just hope it’s a phase that goes away on its own. Veniamin’s own mother, who is at complete loss when it comes to understanding her son,  for example falls to the latter category after she utter fails to enforce any type authority on her son. Similarly the school’s principal would rather just let Veniamin do whatever he wants, such as allowing disruptive stunts like dressing up in a gorilla costume and jump around the class room as a form of mockery and protest over the theory of evolution being taught at the school, to go entirely unpunished, due to being too afraid to say anything negative about religion as it might reflect badly on her. Another good example of how people inexplicably just let Veniamin get away with his outbursts with no true repercussions is when the local pries finally gets involved. Even after he personally comes to some blows with Veniamin, he ultimately chooses to ignore the hateful rhetoric and distortions of the word of God and only shows interest in the fact that he’s found a teenager who is so passionate about religion.

It’s very telling the way the movie approaches the general apathy and lack of concern from any form of authority in regards to the chaos Veniamin cultivates and how hopeless it depicts the fight against such demagoguery from the point of view of a single person to be. One might even say the film is direct criticism aimed towards the strong influence that the church enjoys in Russia’s politics, and how powerless the people are to fight the system. The former sounds believable especially when you stop to consider how everyone seems to just want to ignore Veniamin’s behavior, due to any form of criticism towards his religious rhetoric being viewed as a total faux pas, to a point where they end up just placating all his whims, fearing that they might be perceived anti-religion were they to say or do something. Or when even the actual representative member of the clergy doesn’t seem to find anything fundamentally wrong with Veniamin actions (which include things like attempts at faith healing) and hatefulness, and instead just wants to praise his passion towards religion, saying that it’s a gift. It’s dangerous to give the type of behavior Veniamin embodies a complete free pass as long as it’s masked under the veil of religious fervor because  if it isn’t nipped in the bud, there soon comes a time when there’s no stopping it anymore.

There’s one last thing I want to comment on before wrapping this up. If you were to analyze Veniamin in depth, you could probably interpret most of his actions as an awkward and entirely misguided cry for help and/or attention due to a possible personal psychological crisis he had gone through just prior to the story’s beginning. I’ve played around with the idea for a long time now that his religious fundamentalism might actually be a an extreme form of projection, because Veniamin had privately realized that he was gay. But because he couldn’t accept that fact, he turned to religion and became an extremist in attempt to deny that part of himself, which is something we’ve seen a lot in the past, especially in politics. The loudest bigots after all have a tendency to be exposed to have had a secret life that goes against the very thing they were famous for  aggressively opposing. Given the strong cultural homophobia that you can still find in Russia, not to mention Veniamin’s slightly peculiar relationship with the cripple male classmate, who even becomes a sort of disciple of his and later is revealed to be gay with feelings towards Veniamin, a it might not be that farfetched.

Although Veniamin’s religious extremism does end up being exposed to the viewer  as entirely hypocritical and self-serving by the end, don’t expect the movie to deliver any type of happy ending where the bad guy gets what is coming to him. The movie instead ends with almost entirely crushing feeling of hopelessness and bleakness, as Veniamin appears to basically get away with murder and all his misdeed go unpunished. Veniamin even manages to destroy and sully Elena’s, I.E. his only real opposer, reputation by lying that she sexually harassed him, leaving the aftermath entirely open ended and ambiguously as to how far Veniamin is able to go with his demagoguery. But if we’re to take anything from the tone of the story, it’s far more likely that his reach and terror would only get more widespread with time rather than being extinguished by voices of reason.

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