Thursday, May 30, 2013

Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment is distilled in Darezhan Omirbaev's STUDENT

STUDENT is the first of Darezhan Omirbaev's films that TrustMovies has seen, but if it's a fair indication of this Kazakh film-maker's quality, little wonder this fellow's reputation is on the rise. An awfully lot happens in Fyodor Dostoyevsky's original novel Crime and Punishment, which forms the basis of Omirbaev's movie. The glory of the filmmaker's achievement is that, while he has shortened the story via less incidents and characters, he has man-aged to distill the novel wonderfully well without watering it down.

Part of the mystery and achievement of Dostoyevsky is his creation of Raskolnikov, whose character and motives are both plain and obscure. Not everything can be explained, nor does it need to be. Real character is always part mystery. Omirbaev (shown at right -- who doubles as actor here, playing a film director of the film within the film) understands this and so manages the same complex achievement. While there is plenty of motive to be found in our student's environment -- beginning with the film he is working on as part of the crew, during which he observes another young crew member given a beating because he spilled tea on the sleazy "star" -- he is also clearly and profoundly ill at ease with society and himself.

Kazakhstan today proves a near-perfect place to set a modern retelling of this tale, for evidently, its capital, Almaty, has become a paean to Capitalism run amok. Hearing a woman professor teach a class (below) on this subject is outright shocking, particularly given what us oldsters recall of the formerly Communist times. The prof's lecture is capped off perfectly with a statement from one of her students that brings everything immediately into perspective. There is also a scene involving a stalled car and a donkey that is simply staggering in its look at the "entitlement" of the fittest.

A poet appears, who takes our student back home with him to meet the family. The result is one of those weird acts of generosity that all of us are capable of at the odd time. After the student sees a local merchant refuse a poor old women any credit, he manages to get himself a black market gun (our kid has connections!). And yes, he uses it, as much, it seems, to allow him to understand of what he is capable, as for any sense of justice and righting wrongs.

We don't see the killings, which take place behind a closed door. The film is certainly shot on-the-cheap and is simply done, yet is it neither simple nor simplistic. Along the way television images consistently show us nature documentaries offering the survival-of-the-fittest theme. When, well into things, we visit another class in Kazakh, in which the teacher offers Lao-Tze philosophy so different from what we earlier heard, the effect lifts a load from our heart and mind.

Yes, we have the parental visit, with kid sister in tow, and the love object, whose purse our anti-hero manages to retrieve (above) at some physical cost after a robbery. All this is given us in quick strokes, with a minimum of dialog, yet the effect is deeply felt, both by the participants and us viewers. Omirbaev has an amazing penchant for making the tiny moment resonate. Don't blink. One of the most beautiful of these comes at a moment when our hero is undecided about entering or leaving a particular place and looks across to the face of his girl. Again, this is so quick, so barely there, and so profound.

We're never quite able to say exactly why our boy is adrift, depressed, cut off from social life. No theory fits exactly, and the mix of causes remains always just an educated guess. That is one of the things that makes Dostoyevsky resonate, and it works in this film, as well -- giving us, despite all that has gone before, an ending that is somehow quietly joyous.

Student, in Kazakh and Russian with English subtitles, which opens for a week's run tomorrow, Friday, May 31, at New York City's Anthology Film Archives, is co-presented by AFA and the Global Film Initiative and is part of the Global Lens 2013 film series.

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