(M)uchenik: manipulator or martyr?
Kirill Serebrennikov’s film “(M)uchenik” (“(М)ученик” in Russian) speaks about a student, Veniamin, who gradually turns into a radical follower of the bible, manipulating people and justifying all his ideas and actions with quotes from the holy book.
The blind preaching of faith however, beginning as a game of pushing boundaries and provoking others, takes ever more concrete forms and insane twists as both the school system and Veniamin’s mother are trying to adapt to his ideas, and his influence keeps growing. The only person who tries to confront him is his biology teacher, Elena, but her attempts drown in her stubborn student’s sea of manipulations.
The film is based on German playwright Marius von Mayenburg’s play “Märtyrer”, which Serebrennikov previously directed on stage. Excessive adherence to the theatre, however, is also one of the major downsides of the film. Veniamin recites the bible quotes in a solemn, elevated tone of voice, his mother’s emotional lamentations at home and at school are so over-the-top that she seems to be joking all of the time, the teachers and the principal are like stereotypes trying to play humans, the classmate trying to flirt with Veniamin is painstakingly witty and modern…
This all would suit a theatre play very well, but in a film, this sort of acting and plain characters seem obviously exaggerated, almost comic at times. The meaning and the credibility of the story tend to disappear as the actors consistently remind us that they’re acting. Still, “(M)uchenik” offers a lot of food for thought.
Serebrennikov said in an interview that he found religion always came with pain and trauma. “Originally, religion was love, but it doesn't work in our life, in our world. Now, religion is a point of aggressive misunderstanding of different nations and countries. It’s a point of terrorism, of separation. It’s terrible.”
It is nevertheless a little difficult to see this story as criticism of religion only. The director does not come up with a single answer for the cause of Veniamin’s “radicalisation” and also leaves open where the border between sincere faith and manipulating provocation lies — and whether in this instance it exists at all.
However, it is made quite clear that the main question does not lie in faith or the lack of it, but Veniamin’s inability to deal with his problems and his controversial feelings. Quoting Serebrennikov again, “… the girls don’t pay attention to him, and he has a crisis in his family, no father, the mother is stupid. Nobody understands him, and he has to do something with his ego, to show himself to the world, ‘Here I am.’ It’s a problem, and it [evolves into] violence, into catastrophe.”
The review of "(M)uchenik" by Helina Koldek was first published on Culture.ee's blog.