student1[xrr rating=2.25/5]The title card that flashes over Nurlan Bajtasov’s inscrutably blank face quickly identifies him as the nameless student of Darezhan Omirbayev’s film, a blunt form of identification matched by text underneath the title announcing the movie as an adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. The upfront, literal statement of intent prepares one for the dutiful replication of the novel’s plot points, but its unadorned presentation anticipates a failure to even partially transcribe the Russian master’s singular portrayal of philosophical turmoil manifested as violence in physical action, psychological reflection and unhinged prose. Where the author’s text bustles in war with itself, Omirbayev’s film is inert, mirroring the unblinking stillness of its zombified protagonist.

The film establishes a postmodern outlook from the opening scene, which stays static on an on-screen camera as a film shoot breaks after getting a shot of an attractive actress doing nothing more than standing around smiling as a fan kicks up her hair. Omirbayev himself appears as a director, responding to a combative young reporter’s description of his script as shallow by saying, “I believe that cinema exists so people can get some rest and enjoyment.” No sooner does he say this than the set erupts in minor chaos as an ogling assistant drops hot tea on the actress, whose rich boyfriend sends henchmen to beat the kid up in retaliation. The film elides over the assault, instead cutting between shots of the closet where one thug takes the kid and shots of onlooking colleagues, setting a precedent for when Bajtasov’s character, one of the spectators, turns to murder.

The oblique approach to violence, however, also extends to the student’s nonexistent motivations, strung along by wisps of thudding social commentary from other characters, like a professor who extols the virtues of capitalism and its attendant Social Darwinism or, much later, a different teacher who rejects that philosophy for a more humanistic worldview. Likewise, cutaways to television programs on US presidents, modern cityscapes and nature documentaries of lions reduce the novel’s dense web of philosophy into a set of easy signifiers. Bajtasov simply occupies the frame, his head always cast down at the floor in such a way that his scowl registers as awkwardness more than sociopathy. As such, he responds to each of these simplified stimuli as if they were a command. In the case of the more idealistic, altruistic professor’s lecture, the student appears to use it as a model for penance as much as his thin relationship with the film’s Sonya stand-in, a deaf girl (Maya Serikbaeva) who matches Bajtasov’s silent, confounding stares with her own.

Minimalist set-ups juxtapose such on-the-nose features with a modicum of subtlety. The frames within the frame highlight both the student’s separation and the artificiality of many of the barriers he places between himself and those even of his own social class. One shot, of an alleyway where the student trades his father’s military medal for a gun, looks as if it takes place against a Rothko painting, with the concrete wall colored by paint, wear and shadow in rectangular patterns. The silence of its static space and infrequent dialogue, however, contains no hint of inner turmoil or madness. Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov thought himself an übermensch, but Omirbayev’s student does not even have a name.

Robert Bresson made his own stripped-down version of the classic novel, but Pickpocket brims with fury and nihilism under its taciturn surfaces. It recognizes the ineffable complexities of social and personal ills that Student streamlines into a chilly, facile critique of capitalism, propelled by a young man whose actions appear to come not from madness or antisocial zeal but the simple, meaningless desire to put his peers’ words into action. Thus, Student occupies itself with the brash, smug rhetoric of privileged youth with education but no experience, setting up a potential joke of a Dostoevsky adaptation aimed squarely at those who still read Dostoevsky that the film does not follow through upon, leaving only a lifeless version of one of literature’s most intense and encompassing works.

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