Kirill Serebrennikov’s film “(M)uchenik” (Russian title “(М)ученик” conveys the content of the film by combining the words ‘the tortured/martyr’ and ‘pupil’) speaks about the pupil Veniamin, who gradually becomes a radical follower of the bible, manipulating with people and justifying all his ideas and deeds with quotations from the holy book. The blind preaching of faith beginning with the boundaries-pushing game and provocation, however, takes ever more concrete forms and insane twists, as both the school system and Veniamin’s mother try to adapt to his ideas and his influence keeps growing. The only person who tries to confront Veniamin is his biology teacher Elena, but her attempts drown into the stubborn pupil’s sea of manipulations as well.
The film is based on German playwright Marius von Mayenburg’s play „Märtyrer“, which Serebrennikov has previously directed for stage. Excessive adherence to the theatre, however, is 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 school principal are like stereotypes trying to play humans, the classmate trying to flirt with Veniamin is painstakingly witty and modern… This all would suit very well the theatre stage, but in a film this sort of acting and plain characters seem obviously exaggerated, being almost comical at times. The meaning and the credibility of the story tend to disappear as the actors consistently remind us that they’re acting. Essentially, “(M)uchenik” still offers a lot of food for thought.
Serebrennikov has said in an interview: “Religion always comes 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.” Nevertheless, it is a little difficult to see this story as only criticism of religion. The director does not give singular answers as to the cause of Veniamin’s “radicalisation” and also leaves open where the border between sincere faith and manipulating provocation lies and whether it, in this instance, even exists. 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 controversial feelings. Quoting Serebrennikov himself again: “… the girls don’t pay attention to him and he has a crisis in his family, no father, 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.”