DAILY | Cannes 2012 | Darezhan Omirbayev’s STUDENT

“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,” begins Daniel Kasman at MUBI’s Notebook. “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 quotidian, 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.”

“It’s more than a decade since the Kazakhstani director’s The Road (also in the Un Certain Regard strand) met with a warm reception from the Cannes critics, but the new film shows he hasn’t lost his capacity to combine simplicity of method with subtlety of resonance,” writes Geoff Andrew for Sight & Sound, adding that “the film is often reminiscent (in its lighting, colour schemes, low-key acting style and pacing) of Aki Kaurismäki’s version of the same novel, though for the most part without the Finn’s trademark deadpan humor.” Let’s note here that Leslie Felperin makes the same point in Variety; moving on: “Indeed, with its pared-back, taciturn, almost Bressonian directness, Student might even seem like a rather naïve take on the Dostoyevsky theme, were it not for Omirbayev using a couple of scenes of philosophy lectures and some judiciously chosen clips playing on the student’s landlady’s television to add depth to the theme of responsibility and ethics.”

At the House Next Door, Budd Wilkins dissents: “Because Omirbaev doesn’t flesh out any of the quasi-philosophical discussion, like the scene where a fellow student reads aloud about ‘postmodern uselessness,’ the subtext simply lays there inert, neither hefty enough to stimulate speculation on the audience’s part, nor wafer-thin enough to dismiss as mere window dressing. Furthermore, the lack of a cinematic analogue for the policeman who pursues the student killer further saps the narrative pacing. Given the film’s static shots and somnambulistic pacing, it could have used some. Granted, the obvious precursor here is Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket. But whereas Bresson broke the world and humankind down into shards of perceived experience, only to recast them in what Paul Schrader termed ‘transcendental style,’ Omirbaev adopts rigorous montage as nothing more than a fashion, and narrative ambiguity becomes a ploy just to leave shit unexplained.”


Stephen Dalton in the Hollywood Reporter: “Shot on location in Almaty’s shabby suburbs, Student interweaves a truncated but broadly faithful approximation of Dostoevsky’s sprawling plot with heavy-handed observations about the baleful impact of capitalism on post-Communist Kazakhstan—apparently a hotspot of rampant corruption, deepening inequality and new-money gangsters getting away with crime but no punishment. This is a valid way to update the novel, which was itself a topical commentary on the tidal wave of nihilism and radicalism that would soon engulf pre-Revolutionary Russia. Unfortunately, Omirbaev fails to invest either the murder plot or its political subtext with much suspense or conviction. Instead, his nameless anti-hero appears virtually catatonic, in sharp contrast to Dostoevsky’s manic and perpetually self-questioning Raskolnikov.”

Update, 5/20: “Given the recognition that the source novel has all over, and the deceptive simplicity of this adaptation, now is possibly a good time for producers and distributors to begin a small Omirbayev bandwagon that would highlight his gifts and potential,” suggests Howard Feinstein in Screen. “He could be one of the greats if given half a chance.”

Update, 5/24: James Quandt for the National Post: “Omyrbaev proves a brazen stranger to subtlety in his recasting of Dostoevsky as critique of post-socialist Russia, interpolating footage of lions attacking hyenas and zebras, and television coverage of the Bushes and the JFK assassination into his tale. However, his thematic obviousness is contained by a masterful style grounded in Bresson’s edicts about acting, sound, framing, and editing.”

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