For his seventh feature film acclaimed Russian filmmaker Kirill Serebrennikov has adapted a stage play by the German writer Marius von Mayenburg that takes a hefty swipe at religious fanaticism with this tale of Veniamin (Pyotr Skvortsov) a rebellious newly-devout teenager who is literally determined to make life hell for everyone else who he thinks are sinners. Billed as a drama it does nevertheless feel more like a black comedy for the most part with everyone frantically scrambling around trying to deal with the fallout from Veniamin’s insistence of living life as he believes the Bible dictates.
The story starts to unfold when Veniamin doesn’t just refuse to don trunks to go swimming at school but he complains that the girls in his class should not be allowed to wear bikinis. (Strangely enough he thinks nothing of stripping naked in a biology class as his protest at the teacher handing out condoms.) Regardless of that the nervous and rather conservative School Principal concedes that on this occasion Veniamin may have a point, and orders the girls to cover up. That only encourages the obsessed boy to trot out passages from his dog-eared bible at every aspect of contemporary life that he feels is immoral and it not in strict keeping with God’s specific take on it, which is usually applicable to every single thing.
His exasperated atheist mother (Yuliya Aug) would prefer that the real reason that he didn’t want to wear the swimming trunks was because he got ‘involuntary erection’s’ or was actually on drugs as she could deal with that much better than the fact that her only son was getting high on God. The school’s Russian Orthodox Priest (Nikolay Roshchin) thinks he can brow beat the boy with his superior knowledge, but Veniamin, like any Christian fanatic, cherry picks the parts of the bible that suits his extreme arguments.
His liberal-minded Jewish science teacher (Viktoriya Isakova) is the only one who objects to everyone bullying Veniamin’s extreme views, and she takes it upon herself to study the bible with some intensity in order to have some logical arguments to deal with the teenager, but that ends up backfiring on her. As does the friendship of poor Grigior (Aleksandr Gorchilin) one of his classmates who is constantly picked on by the other boys because he has a limp, and who becomes Veniamin’s only companion. Veniamin treats Grigior like a cripple who God wants him to deal with, whilst Grigior keeps hanging around because he actually has a real crush on Veniamin.
This is a Russia that is trying to modernize …… hence liberal Science teachers …… but it still takes its religion very seriously indeed, and in fact the Orthodox Church still powerfully intrudes on so many levels of both the culture and the institutions. It is probably why there is no real attempt to outright ban Veniamin’s fanaticism but just a concerted effort to railroad it so it couldn’t actually impinge on anyone else’s life or disrupt them any further.
Young Skvortsov as Veniamin had this wonderful wide-open eyes that gave him this permanent manic stare on his face, and so helped his pitch perfect performance as the righteous rather crazy fanatic. His mother too was such a sheer joy with her pragmatic attitude which unintentionally actually came off as being very funny for the most part, as did the School Principal who fussed about anything that upset her ordered daily routine, and who was literally fit to burst when she came across the stark naked Venimilian running amok in his Biology Class.
A tad long at 118 minutes, however the movie was surprisingly quite compelling and now it’s easy to see why it created such a stir when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year.