Dárejan Ómirbaev turns his sights on classical Russian literature in his 2012 film Stýdent [Student], a modernised adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment. The setting, of course, shifts from 19th-century Saint Petersburg to 21st-century Almaty. Dostoevsky’s Raskol’nikov becomes a nameless Kaırat-esque university student: emaciated, bespectacled, dressing in windbreakers and t-shirts that always seem to fit him too loosely, given to stares burning with seething repressed emotions. This representation of Raskol’nikov, it sometimes seems, is tailored to suit Ómirbaev’s preferred minimalistic style – practically no music, very little dialogue, incredibly heavy context and emotional subtext. But despite Ómirbaev tending to ‘write himself in’ to the novel in this way – something about which I have decidedly mixed feelings – many of the questions Dostoevsky explores in his original novel make the transition remarkably well. Ómirbaev brings Dostoevsky’s religious psychology to bear on a post-Soviet reality, and questions of capitalism versus socialism and materialism versus spirituality, in ways that make a certain degree of intuitive sense, and which follow the spirit of the novel closely, but not slavishly.
Our student (Nurlan Baısatov) starts out working as a camera operator on the set of a film directed by ‘Torebaev’ (Dárejan Ómirbaev in something of a self-deprecating cameo), who is then accosted by a student journalist (Ol’ga Korotko) who begins asking him if he’s ashamed of shooting ‘empty and shallow’ films that don’t engage serious problems. Meanwhile, one of the crew spills some tea on the lap of his leading lady (Ásel Saǵatova). The diva calls her big-shot banker boyfriend, who pulls up in an SUV with a couple of toughs, who drag the crewman into the bathroom and proceed to beat him to a bloody pulp while our student looks on in shock. This has ramifications for the student, who quits the film crew in disgust. Because he quit his job, he can’t make rent and is forced to make money in other ways.
After this opening scene, the main plot follows the beats of Dostoevsky’s novel incredibly faithfully – with a few twists. Instead of an axe, the student pawns his grandfather’s war medal for an old pistol and a magazine with three bullets. Instead of a pawnbroker, the student murders a callous magazin clerk who refuses to extend a credit line to an elderly pensioner – along with a woman who also happens to come into the store to shop. In this version of the story, Marmeladov is transmogrified into an elderly poet (Edige Bolysbaev) who writes verse in Kazakh, and his daughter Saniya is a deaf-mute who does all the housework for her drunk father and her wheelchair-bound mother. The student’s family includes a caring mother, and a younger sister Arujan who goes to med school in Atyrau. The Razumihin of this film adaptation is the student’s leather-rocking classmate Marat, who struggles with him to comprehend the worldview of the university lecturers.
This film has a number of throwbacks and hat-tips to earlier films of the Kazakh New Wave – of which Ómirbaev was himself very much a part, with Kaırat and Kardiogramma. Apart from Ásel Saǵatova (who played Saıan’s girlfriend in Réketır) and Ómirbaev himself, the cast is entirely made up – in good Kazakh New Wave tradition – of theatre-school and film-school students and amateur actors. As in Kaırat, here are often TV sets in the frame, and they are often turned on. But the way they are used is much more a hat-tip to Igla, where they foreshadow some element of the plot, or carry some sort of symbolism which Ómirbaev wants to convey to the viewer. Nature programmes often show predatory animals bringing down their prey, for example. And the greedy convenience store clerk is always seen watching historical footage of American presidents like George HW Bush; just before the student kills him, he’s watching a documentary on the Kennedy assassination!
Stýdent also deliberately frames our student’s inner struggles with ideology, courage and authenticity against a backdrop showcasing the amorality of Kazakhstan’s post-Soviet nouveaux riches: a theme deftly introduced by the opening scene with the diva actress who sics her husband’s hired goons on the film crew. In the same scene where the student meets the drunken elderly poet, two security guards are talking about how their employer’s dog eats better meat than they do, and how the daughter drives a hand-assembled German sports car worth $400,000. In another scene, a donkey driver attempts to help a young couple pull their Range Rover out of a ditch – when it takes too long, the young man in a fit of rage gets out of the Range Rover, grabs a golf club and brains the unoffending donkey with it, before getting back in the SUV and driving off. This is juxtaposed against the struggles of practically everyone else struggling to make ends meet. In the university lecture halls, a young female professor preaches to her class, including our student and his classmate Marat, about the failures of socialism and the necessity of the capitalist ‘law of the jungle’ where the strong triumph in ruthless competition, and where the disappearance of the weak is the tragic but necessary price of progress. It is Marat who gives voice to the question of whether this law of the jungle gives those who live under it licence to kill, but we do not hear the professor’s response.
There is another Kazakhstan which is alluded to by the elderly poet, by the student’s own mother and sister, and of course by Saniya. This is the Kazakhstan which has not forgotten its past. There is a strong undercurrent of spirituality here. Unlike in Aqan Sataev’s films, though, the spirituality alluded to in Stýdent is not exclusively Islâmic – although that element is certainly there. The student participates in a Muslim wake for the poet after he is found dead, and in the poet’s living room there’s a big old poster of none other than the great Kazakh poet, moralist and Neoplatonic-Sûfî philosopher Abaı Qunanbaıuly. It makes sense that a Kazakh poet would lionise Abaı and keep his portrait in a place of honour. But in the context of the film the poster of Abaı is placed and used almost in an iconographic sense.
But in the student’s dream sequences, his mother – the voice of conscience – appears to him while he is napping on a bench outside a Russian Orthodox Church, and this seems to be what prompts him to go to Saniya and confess his crime to her. In addition, the voice of this spirituality in this film is placed in the mouth of another university lecturer, an elderly Soviet professor who riffs on Weber and Spengler, and approvingly quotes Laozi 老子 as a source of communitarian spiritual values which are authentically applicable to the ‘harsh steppes’ of Kazakhstan. I don’t believe Dostoevsky would entirely approve of Ómirbaev’s quasi-Perennialist interpretation of his novel, because for him the central question of Crime and Punishment is that of: the ‘law of the jungle’, or Christ. Even so, this reading comes closer to his meaning than many other sæcular understandings of his work.
There are a number of little cinematic flourishes that render this adaptation of Crime and Punishment attractive and even charming – not least of which is the understated intensity of Nurlan Baısatov’s acting. But, I note with a little exasperation, Ómirbaev can’t help leaving his own impress on the adaptation. It wouldn’t be an Ómirbaev film unless: 1.) the protag has multiple dream sequences; 2.) the protag gets beaten up and bloodied in a fight; 3.) the protag’s friend recites a lengthy book passage to him while he listens impassively. Another pet peeve I had with this film: it’s one thing to have a cast that consists mostly of amateurs and students themselves: in fact, this is one thing about Kazakhstani cinema I find refreshing! But it’s quite another thing to shoot the film in such a way that it seems almost amateurish itself. The camera direction’s overuse of mid-distance static takes creates an unintentional source of comedy. And the sound editing seems to privilege atmospherics – in particular the sound of footfalls on concrete – over dialogue.
In all, as a modern adaptation of Crime and Punishment, Stýdent is well worth a watch, despite its Bressonian arthouse idiosyncracies and overall throwback feel. Dostoevsky might not approve of the Perennialist interpretation which downplays the central question of Christ. But he would certainly approve of how Ómirbaev posed the problem of how post-shock therapy hypercapitalist materialism has distorted human moral psychology in ex-Soviet states. In this he has a firm grasp on the contemporary ressourcement in Kazakhstan of not only Dostoevsky, but also Abaı Qunanbaıuly and the tradition of classical Chinese ethical philosophy, as articulated by authors like Orazaly Sábden.