Cannes 2012. Darezhan Omirbaev's "Student"

Kazakh master Darezhan Omirbaev continues adapting Russian literature—after Chekhov and Tolstoy—with a moving, pared _Crime and Punishment_.
Daniel Kasman


You cannot look away from Darezhan Omirbaev's Student, as you can't look away from any of the Kazakh director's films, for each and every shot is quietly but powerfully charged. It always seems a minute charge until a simple shot's condensation of narrative expression and emotional nuance sneaks up on you. In this new film, liberally yet efficiently adapted from Crime and Punishment, the titular student, very poor, very dejected, rides a bus through town; later that afternoon he spontaneously gives away money to the family of an unemployed poet; finally, we see him walking through the rain, and suddenly: ah! he is so poor that he gave away even his bus fare. It is not a chain of this-and-then-that, but a quiet movement, elliptical and quotidean, asking the audience to read how a nominally unimportant action or insert is, in fact, crucially telling to what's going on in someone's mind, in their life, in the connection between scenes.

Like how 2009's Shuga adapted Anna Karinina down to ninety minutes, Student pares away its source and the world until all that's left is the everyday that speaks volumes, volumes materially, narratively and emotionally. As with Kaïrat, Killer, The Road and Shuga, Omirbayev sees how contemporary social, political and economic life in Kazakhstan “calls up” stories of profound universality which, when stripped to their potent core, become absolutely of their new, specific place and time.

His recent move to adapting Tolstoy, Chekhov (for a Jeonju digital short) and here Dostoyevsky sees him move from genre to literature, taking the central conflicts of these stories and rooting them directly in the now of Kazakhstan, a strange and almost surreal (if not dream-like, as the director's films always are fully integrated with his characters' dreams) way of charting on-going progress by calling back to the past for stories of classic, age-old construct. While Killer saw its hero's downward spiral towards violence as the result of new applications of capitalization in the post-Soviet country—a narrative of the individual losing control in a new world—Student charts the opposite. Its hero isn't finding his way in a new society, he's lamentably stuck in his way, an improverished and seemingly ineffectual youth who begins to feel the new need to act as an individual in what has become an unfair world of gross class-wealth disparity between individuals. In response to the bankers and playboys roaming the streets in Range Rovers adorned with gorgeous female passengers and pumping club music while he sleeps in a cramped basement apartment, cannot afford the rent and is lectured to on social Darwinism at school, the student decides to act upon the world violently. There is no policeman in this adaptation; the stone-faced student is the film's center and renders it the most desolate and anguished of Omirbaev's works, intent on the anguish of the young man who sees action against the world as the only valid response to social, material impotence.

Yet, in a typically surprising revelation from the director, after the boy's mother appears in a dream she actually shows up at his apartment, friendly and warm, and we see, for a moment, that the clouded view of his life up til now was but a small picture, subjectively honed down from a more complex reality. These surprises are common in Student, in which nominally incidental elements in another film, like a head laid on a pillow, a bus ride past office buildings, or the reaching into a purse, tremble with longing, suspense and mystery. For the first time in Omirbaev's films dissolves separate scenes, which, along with his characteristic dream sequences—which are dream-like but not dreamy, so they resemble the look and feel of the rest of the film, until a detail gives away the irreality—subjectivize the film's rich but shy emotional core, which seems to count grievances fit to burst, only to tread a path, uphill, collecting more everyday actions and appearances—like the poet's daughter, and the student's mother—that shine a light from the world outside the student's head.

This "outside" is perhaps triumphant over all, as it is what contains the poetry, pith and surprises of the narrative's clean path following the student. The world of the film is not limited to his vision, only interpreted and impaired by it; this materialist filmmaker, whose cinema is always rooted in the reality of the filming, objects and locations, the importance of where people live, work, drive, grow up, nevertheless makes his films so much about perception of this same world, and perception's limits, expanses and reveries. For a long time, Student is nearly a nightmare, sometimes dryly funny (everyone's television seems either to be playing popular garbage or images of conflict, including the assassination of JFK; when a Kazakh documentary comes on television, no one is watching it) before the hero inadvertently realizes there's a difference between acting upon and acting for, taking something on himself instead of putting it to others. And here, marvelously, at the end, dream and the reality of the narrative overlap and never are clarified, creating a profoundly moving ending of questioning, at once hopeful and despairing, one that sees a tremendous significance even in small dreams, if that is all one has for now.

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