With Student, Kazakh auteur Darzhan Omirbaev continues his recent trend of adapting works of the titans of Russian literature to the realities of modern-day central Asia. The film replays the basic narrative of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment in Almaty’s dingy outskirts, employing the story of a cash-strapped college student who kills a greedy, thoughtless shopkeeper as an entry point for a discussion on the dog-eat-dog capitalism that’s emerged in the post-Soviet landscape of Omirbaev’s homeland. But to call Student an adaptation is perhaps too generous: Omirbaev cribs the basic schema of his source novel, but Student is lacking in the immediacy and philosophical intent that make Dostoyevsky’s work a classic.
Student commences by utilizing Omirbaev’s signature trope of meta references to film viewing and filmmaking, but with uncharacteristic banality. The titular character, played by Nurlan Bajtasov, is working as a production hand on a shoot where the director, played by Omirbaev himself, proclaims that “cinema exists so people can get some rest and enjoyment”—an obviously facetious statement about his own cinematic goals. This pronouncement is immediately followed by a young member of the crew being unceremoniously beaten to a pulp by two burly bodyguards after he accidentally spills a drop of tea on the film’s wealthy and well-connected leading lady.
As it alternates between academic musings by professors and students, shots of elderly Kazakhs watching NatGeo-style TV programs about lions on the prowl, and scenes of Almaty’s black-SUV-owning upper class beating on donkeys, youths, and other helpless things, it becomes obvious that subtlety wasn’t Omirbaev’s first priority here. Furthermore, the film’s Raskolnikov stand-in is utterly somnambulant, his demeanor so unchanging through his crime and the subsequent period of supposed regret and recompense that it’s nearly impossible to ascribe intent or moral standing to his actions. The inscrutability of the character paired with Omirbaev’s limp portrait of Darwinian social politics unfortunately serves only to obfuscate any intellectual discussion that the filmmaker intended to ignite.
There are moments in the film when technique and formal qualities shine through: Omirbaev has earned comparisons to Bresson, but certain scenes in Student—particularly a somber nighttime visit to the home of a drunken poet, and a carefully assembled final sequence that leaves the work on a relative high note—seem gently Tarkovskian in their poetic sense of domestic mysticism. But those who know from his previous works that Omirbaev is capable of creating not just window dressing, but images that telegraph his intent through careful composition, will be mostly disappointed here. Student, for all its excoriating examples of the soullessness of modern Kazakhstan, comes off nearly as blunted and empty, more a dull screed than a pointed metaphor.