Reconfiguring a hostage situation and siege-style action premise into a more resonant story of morality and political whims, Aleksei Petrukhin’s new film is a modern and compelling thriller.
Filled with surprises and shocks, but above all else, showing huge respect for debate and education, The Challenge is actually a sequel to Petrikhin’s 2015 film The Teacher, and once again stars Irina Kupchenko as Alla Nikolaevna.
A high school group of teenagers manage to persuade their former favourite teacher (Kupchenko) to join them on a trip to the theatre to watch the premiere of a new performance of Romeo and Juliet. Everyone is excited, and everything seems to be going well; even the new modern dance interpretation is received warmly enough. It’s a nice evening at the theatre. That is, until masked figures shouting insults and baring guns descend on the stage and the drama all gets very real.
Before the crowd really knows what’s going on, the gang of terrorists start to intimidate and threaten, keeping the hostages in their seats and refusing to explain or make any demands. The former teacher is then forced into a dicey situation of negotiation with the terrorists, asking them pertinent questions to try and work through the confusion.
It’s a wonderfully realised plot device. With violence and melodrama taking over the entire venue, Nikolaevna remains calm, broaching subjects of history and cultural ethics with the bad guys. The film raises several important points such as how we view what a terrorist is, and how they became that way. The history of religion and morality is also widely discussed, and with each new question we can see the process of humanisation taking place, as masked villains become different people in search of an answer.
The ‘challenge’ of the title is one that’s set to the students as well as to Nikolaevena, having to use skills learnt in classroom debates of philosophy in the all too real arena of the crisis. It is also a test of the terrorists as well. The situation forces everyone to take responsibility for their actions and not hide behind political or religious doctrine.
Ultimately, the film is about self-discovery, something that’s only done by asking the right questions. The fact that it manages to do this framed in a high-octane thriller only goes to show what a well-produced and imaginative film this is.