What would you do if you were wracked by guilt? And not just any guilt, but the burden of knowing you live only because you sold out a friend–a dear friend–and begged like a dog for the bad guys with the guns to shoot him and not you?
Could you have a normal life? Could you carry on?
And what if you found forgiveness in the eyes of God the Father of Jesus Christ? What then? Would that be enough for you to resume living the way you used to? Or would your life be different, graced by this gift you know you do not deserve?
These are the questions that come to mind after watching 2006’s Ostrov (“The Island“), an utterly haunting Russian movie written by Dmitry Sobolev and directed and produced by Pavel Lungin. That The Island won awards is irrelevant. All that matters is that it is a movie which will stick with you long after the final frames fade to black.
After having his life spared in the most degrading, humiliating way possible, Anatoly finds his way to a Russian Orthodox monastery on a small island in the Russian hinterland. We flash forward to the mid-1970s where Anatoly is now a father at the monastery, endlessly ferrying heavy wheelbarrowfuls of coal to the furnace–a grim penance in twisted mockery of his job as a stevedore on a Soviet steamship during the War–while reciting the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner . . .). Tolerated more than liked by his peers, including young Father Iov and Father Superior Filaret, Anatoly has amassed a following among those still faithful in the USSR.
We first see this when a young woman approaches Anatoly and, not knowing who he is, asks to see Father Anatoly. Anatoly–played masterfully by the utterly compelling Pyotr Mamonov–says he will ask the Father and then return.
And return he does, with something stuffed under his belly to make him look pregnant. Filthy and with rotted teeth, Anatoly admonishes the young woman, whom he somehow knows is with child, that he spoke with the father and tells her she must have the baby. The young woman pleads with Anatoly to bless her abortion so she can someday find a husband, but he refuses quite violently. Then, tears of joy now threatening to spill from his eyes, Anatoly tells her that the child, a boy, and he will be a “golden child,” the light of her life, and if she aborts him neither man nor God will ever want her.
It is a powerful scene, so sincere in the expression of the Orthodox stance on abortion and so unlike anything we would ever see from an American movie. Further, it establishes that Anatoly is not quite right in the head, yet there is something special about him, some whiff of the divine that allows him to perform miracles.
For indeed Anatoly is a miracle worker. He is the archetypal holy fool and his miracles are subtle. There are no mystical sparkles, no bursts of fire. And yet what he says will come to pass does; he can see into the future; and he has the power to heal both the mind and the body. And all he demands of the penitents is that they pray and take Communion.
But are they really miracles, or is Anatoly just a good guesser, a lucky fool whose intense certainty is enough to persuade others?
The Island is not a Western movie, and as such does not follow the typical three-act structure we are used to, nor does it employ the well-worn tropes we know and love. Instead, after the harrowing introduction, we see Anatoly interact with petitioners seeking his healing in a series of vignettes–giving comfort to an widower whose husband died in the War, helping an injured young boy walk again, and even helping Father Filaret overcome his love of material possessions (while nearly killing him in the process). This is a slow movie, a movie that takes its time and lets the camera linger so the visual symbolism is unmistakable to the viewer.
However, it is when Anatoly is asked to exorcise whatever malevolent spirit inhabits the body of a high-ranking Soviet admiral’s daughter that we see the true purpose of Anatoly’s mission and the reason he was given these gifts. For not only is the depiction of the possessed young woman way too believable to twenty first-century eyes (the twenty-something woman behaves like an Internet “manic pixie girl” type of person, and note her visceral horror at the thought of going into the church to pray with Father Anatoly), but her father is important as well.
And then, his mission complete, Father Anatoly, this holy fool, places the period at the end of his life in the only plausible way.
The Island is a visually stunning movie, beautiful in the stark bleakness of its setting. Anatoly’s grimy aspect contrasts with his neat and trim colleagues. His strange behavior–almost possessed himself–does not endear him to his fellow monks, but they still treat him like the child of God he is.
And that is perhaps the most stunning thing about The Island. There is an overwhelming sense of piety around this film. It is difficult to explain. I am not Russian, but I am Orthodox, and I’ve read enough Russian literature and Orthodox literature to know that this film is both very Russian and very Orthodox.
Salvation is something that none of us deserve, yet God gives us a chance anyway in the person of his Son Jesus Christ, as well as the Holy Spirit which animates us and fills our souls. This struggle against damnation is palpable in The Island, and is the only thing that keeps Father Anatoly upright, still carting his coal–a physical manifestation of his guilt–still performing miracles for those who seek them, and still looking for his own way out of perdition and into God’s presence. This is a deeply moving film that anybody of any denomination or no denomination at all will appreciate, as it shows in its own very heavy way how Christ can lift our burdens.
And He often does so in the most roundabout way possible.
As an interesting aside, lead actor Mamonov is himself a devout Orthodox Christian who, before converting in the 90s, was one of the Soviet Union’s most successful musicians, serving as the leader and guitarist of popular rock band Zvuki Mu. Though he still plays under that name, after conversion Mamonov left Moscow and retreated to the remote countryside. “To a large extent, he played himself,” Lungin said of Mamonov. An interesting case of art imitating life, although the word is still out if Mamonov himself is able to perform miracles.
Thanks to Alexandru Constantin for recommending this movie to me.
UPDATE: I would be remiss if I did not point to author Jon Mollison’s review of The Island here.
America’s most visible cinematic response to the godlessness of Hollywood films has been a string of high-profile feel-good “Christian” movies about modern consoomers who learn to slow down and get born again, and thus open a new and more neutered phase of serving the powers that be with hearts filled with kindness and love and happy hands Jesus.
I’m not fan of those.
When it comes to serving God and learning to find peace, The Island takes a very different tack. This is not a film created by followers of Christ whose favorite Gospel is the Gospel of niceness. It is a cold and calculating look at how truly humble men serve God with hearts filled with doubt, and how a truly fervent love of God often means serving Him by acting like a cantankerous old dick. Our protagonist is not a nice man. But he is a good man.
That is an important distinction and one all too often lost on the shepherds of God’s flock in these latter days of the Pax Americana.
Jon’s thoughts are always worth reading, as is his fiction, so check out both.
The Last Ancestor is another pious work. Buy it here!