“The Island” (“Ostrov”)
A Strange Man
This month’s selection from Film Movement, “The Island” is set in North Russia in a small Russian Orthodox monastery where an unusual man lives and confuses his fellow monks with his strange behavior. Those that visit the island believe that he has healing powers, can exorcise demons and is able to see the future.
The film opens with the Second World War and we see a German destroyer escorting a small coal transporting barge. The two man crew is hidden under the coal. Anatoli is forced at gunpoint to give up the other man and then to kill his mate and the captain. He is left to die in an explosion but he survives it and is rescued by monks. We move forward to 1976 and see Anatoli working at the monastery. He is very odd and he performs some wild tricks in which we see his insight into unworldly things. People come to the island seeking him and regarding him as a holy man.
This is a powerful film and we see the essence of a human being here who remains with us long after the film is over. Father Anatoli has a mission and when he achieves it he dies. He is prepared for death and through him we see the strength of man that resides in his essence. The film shows us the difference between a religious person and one who is a member of a church institution. Father Anatoli (Pyotr Mamonov) is an unofficial Orthodox monk who is said to have the power to heal. He is, like all of us, a study of contradiction. On one hand he is a prankster, on the other, a fervent worshipper. His devotion is explained in the opening flashback where Nazis ordered him to murder a comrade. Then we movie onto a look at matters of faith—the relationship between guilt and the wish to do good.
Anatoly is regarded as being able to predict and to heal but it is important to remember that this is what others say about him. He lives in the boiler room, rarely washes or changes his clothes, he is disruptive during church services and he plays practical jokes on the other monks. His character is drawn from Russian tradition where the “holy fool” holds a place. The “holy fool” is a man of bizarre behavior and this opens a deeper truth that is part of the more devout monks’ dedication. Anatoli lives with no luxuries and this is an embarrassment to the others. When he gives advice, he demands some kind of sacrifice.
The gorgeous cinematography adds to the bleak life that Anatoli leads. During the course of the film, we face the issues of sin, faith and redemption. These are heavy ideas that are quite complex. The pace of the film is quite slow and there is repetition but these are for a distinct purpose which you will feel.
We learn that Anatoli suffers with guilt from a sin that he committed years ago and the reason he rarely leaves the coal room is part of his repentance. He feels that the sin has stained him and he stays unkempt as a way of acknowledging his sin. He will not die and he believes that God washed him up on the shore of the island years ago and he is basically a saint who was once a sailor. He hopes to be cleaned by reason.
The film seems to me to be a study of forgiveness—not just of others but also of oneself as we see that man’s isolation is also geographic as in Anatoli. Director Pavel Lounguine uses imagery as symbol here and in doing so chides us to awaken to ourselves—to who we really are.