The first dialogue in the 2006 Russian film Ostrov (“The Island”) is the repeated intonation of the Jesus prayer. The setting is a remote monastery on a thin spit of land on the shore of the White Sea, in Russia’s far north. Monks are shown at prayer, alone and together, in more than one scene. The protagonist, Father Anatoly- he is not a priest but a lay monk; all monks are called “Father” in the Christian east- is a saint, a holy fool, and he is shown not only praying but exercising clairvoyance, healing the lame, foretelling the future, and casting out devils. In one scene he vehemently calls abortion “murder” and threatens a young woman considering one with hellfire.
On the basis of this description, you are no doubt skeptical about Ostrov. Despite my love of Russian spirituality- which is here served straight up, no chaser- I myself have generally been of the sneaky, Walker Percy school when it comes to depicting religious experience. Direct portrayals of holiness nearly all fail; think of the disastrous and self-conscious film Therese a couple of years back..
It is true that there are exceptions to the rule that direct portrayal of religious experience makes bad film, like the Israeli movie Ushpizin, which we discussed here some time ago, but that was about a good man, not a miracle-working saint.
But Ostrov works, and works beautifully, and apparently not just for a Russophile like me. While I cannot read the Russian on the DVD box, there are three of the little olive branch symbols that indicate the film has won awards at festivals.
Ostrov succeeds where others fail for two reasons. The first, quite simply, is the subject matter. The holy fool is a spiritual type that is by nature rich and colorful and funny. He is surely a better subject than say, a parish priest or a teaching sister. And Father Anatoly’s earthy humanity would, I think, engage all but the hardest of hearts.
The second reason this film works is the pure eye of the filmmaker, Pavil Lungin. Aside from a jerky frenetic flashback to World War II, thirty years earlier, where the man who is to become Father Anatoly is shown committing a cowardly and vicious sin, a sin for which he will spend the rest of his life in repentance, the film is meditative, almost still. The camera lingers over the ebb and flow of the waters, the wind and snow and clouds. Ostrov unfolds like a prayer. The score, which evokes Slavonic sacred music when it is not quoting it, weaves an undulating atmosphere into the story, which is one of the redemption of often reluctant souls.
Ostrov is a wonder, a gem of a film.
I had to order it online, as neither the interlibrary loan system nor local video stores could find it. But then, as it is one of the handful of films to which I will return again and again, that seems a sound investment indeed.
Find this film and watch it; it is unlike anything you have ever seen.
NOTE from Maclin: if you comment on this post and have seen the movie, please don’t reveal important plot elements. Thanks.
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