Ostrov - The Island
|Dmitry Dyuzhev||Brother Job|
|Viktor Suhorukov||Brother Filaret|
|Directed by||Pavel Lounguine|
Russian director Pavel Lounguine (Luna Park, Taxi Blues) has got religion, and he lays it out here like a beautifully woven hair shirt. The Island is visually stunning in its bleak, blue-hued austerity, but its storytelling is simplistic. Then again, conviction in such matters is probably a matter of conviction. True believers may be disinclined to demand a great deal in the way of sophistication or answerability from a story of Christian fervor and miraculous redemption. Others will find that this story leaves them cold.
Cold is the operative element in The Island. On a cold night in 1942, a Russian boat in the remote White Sea is intercepted by a Nazi patrol. There are two men on board: the heroic, laconic captain, Tikhon (Alexey Zelensky), who faces the villainous Germans by lighting a cigarette and awaiting execution with a contemptuous shrug; and the young stoker Anatoly (Timofey Tribuntsov), who falls apart, grovels, and pleads for his life. The Nazis being Nazis, they force Anatoly to do something that will steep the rest of his life in irredeemable guilt. To be fair, they don’t expect that to be very long. They rig his boat with explosives and blow it up, with him on it.
But Anatoly survives the explosion, survives a night floating in the icy waters of the White Sea, and is discovered in the morning washed up on the frozen shore by monks of a tiny island monastery.
Leap ahead three and a half decades. Anatoly (now played by former Russian rock star Pyotr Mamanov) is still at the monastery. He is gaunt, balding, rotten-toothed and grimy. He has acquired something of a reputation as a holy man and a mystic. He spends his days muttering prayers, prostrating himself on the cold rocky ground in self-mortification, and gathering coal. He lives apart from the monks, in the boiler room, where he stokes the furnace, the same job he performed in the opening scene on the boat. These furnaces invoke the image of hell fire, an element Anatoly surely expects to encounter when he finally goes to his reward.
People come out by boat from the mainland to seek his blessing, his counsel, his curative powers. He heals the sick, gives stern advice to the troubled, reveals long-hidden secrets, predicts the future, and exorcises demons. Anatoly is also a bit of a prankster, though his pranks are message-driven. He smears coal grease on his door handle to soil the palm and tweak the ego of Brother Job (Dmitry Dyuzhev), a proud young monk who doesn’t much care for the maverick Anatoly. "He doesn't wash his hands,” Job complains to Brother Filaret ((Viktor Suhorukov), the abbot . “He is always late. And he has tea with laymen, with sugar!" Anatoly also impishly faces the wrong way during prayer, which drives Job nuts. “If everyone prayed in his own way,” the monk complains in one of the script’s more freighted lines, “where would we be?”
Lounguine does not go into the provenance of Anatoly’s powers. There is the suggestion in the film’s production notes that the guilt-ridden Anatoly doesn’t take himself seriously as a holy man, and yet he does tell a child to throw away his crutches and walk, he does perform a successful exorcism, he does accurately predict the future, and he does take it on himself to terrorize his comfort-loving abbot into ridding himself of superficial worldly goods. How long this has been going on we have no idea – did it start with his arrival on the island, or did it emerge after years of penitent self-laceration? Is it a product of his sin, and his guilt? Does it signify God’s favor, a Divine redemption that Anatoly himself has not accepted?
Resolution for Anatoly’s tortured conscience is at hand, in a heavy-handed plot twist that ushers in the end game. But for those for whom this parable of crime, punishment, and forgiveness is spiritually profound, the twist of plot will be merely a necessary handmaiden to the arc of redemption.
The deeper pleasure of this movie is its visual magnificence. As photographed by Andrey Zhegalov, in hues of blue and grey that barely break the color barrier, this bleak and barren outpost of civilization off the Barents Sea, with its glassy waters and rocky promontories, is ravishingly spare and imbued with a meditative peace.
The Island is a labor of personal religious devotion on the part of its makers. Mamonov, the former rock star and cult figure, has put that life behind him and embraced the church, in part as a result of playing this role, though he is still engaged in “the evil business” (to quote the production notes) of entertainment. Lounguine, in these same notes, declares that “this is a film about the fact that God exists”. As fact-based religion, The Island has an aspect of preaching to the choir. However, those outside the choir loft will be able to appreciate the spirituality of the aesthetic, even if they are not caught up in the sermon.
© Text 2008 Jonathan Richards - Filmfreak.be