Wednesday, October 17, 2012

CIFF notes: Darezhan Omirbaev's Student

Posted By on 10.17.12 at 11:13 AM

A modern-day Raskolinkov, at right
  • A modern-day Raskolinkov, at right
For years I'd heard about Darezhan Omirbaev, one of Kazakhstan's most respected living filmmakers, though I hadn't been able to see any of his work. Even in the DVD era—when supposedly "everything" is available—central Asian movies remain difficult to come by. Facets Multimedia has a copy of his Killer (1998), but that's all I've been able to track down in Chicago. The critic Kent Jones dedicated his essential volume Physical Evidence to Omirbaev (for "still believ[ing] in cinema on the other side of the world"), which only heightened my curiosity, if not my understanding of what his films were actually like. So I was glad that the Chicago International Film Festival added Omirbaev's Student to its lineup at the last minute: I'd have my first chance to see one of his movies on a big screen. (It plays one more time on Monday at 3 PM.)

I caught Student last night, and I found it so artful and well intentioned that I wish I liked it more. Omirbaev's style, as Jones and other critics have noted, owes an obvious debt to Robert Bresson's: the performers are inexpressive, while the compositions and sound design are exacting. There's a hard materiality to everything that all but forces the spectator to imbue the film with his own humanity. And like Bresson's Pickpocket, Student takes place in the present but draws on Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment for its themes and plot points.

The title character is a taciturn young man who commits a meaningless murder to see if he can get away with it. But unlike Dostoevsky's antihero, the student's fundamental crisis isn't spiritual but political. Student takes place in the booming metropolis of Almaty, presented in the film as a site of runaway capitalism that's buried most traces of its communist past. In the most risible scene, one of the student's professors promotes a philosophy of social Darwinism as the only way to survive in a market economy. (I never thought I'd accuse someone of simplifying social Darwinism, but somehow this professor—a straw-woman capitalist stooge who might have made Sergei Eisenstein chuckle—manages to.) In a more compelling moment, one of his peers reads to him from an essay about the postmodern era being morally bankrupt.

Making this modern Raskolnikov a product of the zeitgeist would seem to drain his story of the spiritual struggle that makes Dostoevsky's work timeless. Or perhaps the struggle remains and I failed to recognize Omirbaev's depiction of it. Bresson's art is only as deep as what the spectator is willing to bring to it; I'm still curious to see more of Omirbaev's to gauge how deep it may be.

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