Russian film director Pavel Lungin is perhaps most famous for his bleak, gritty dramas about the despair of post-Communist Russia, earning him a reputation as a fan favorite at film festivals around the world. His most recent film, Ostrov (The Island), was named the closing picture at the 2006 Venice Film Festival, nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2007, and was the winner of nearly every Nika Award imaginable. (The Nikas are Russian cinema's most prestigious national film award. Think Oscars, only with vodka instead of champagne.)
Top off this sort of critical acclaim with the addition of Pyotr Mamonov (former front man for the cult rock band Zvuki Mu) in the lead role, and one might safely assume that the movie would involve offensive amounts of sex, absurd levels of violence, a seizure-inducing editing style, and a raucous rock/pop score.
Instead, we're given a slow-moving, beautifully subtle parable of guilt, repentance, jealousy, forgiveness, and faith – a masterpiece of cinematic restraint and spiritual depth that evokes memories of the perplexing, deeply Christian Russia of Fydor Dostoyevsky and filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky.
The film opens in 1942 aboard a Russian coal barge, moments before its capture by a Nazi gunboat. A young coal stoker named Anatoli, his hiding place quickly discovered, is offered a brutal choice by his German assailants: either kill the barge's captain or be shot himself. Crazed with fear, he struggles to escape, but finally succumbs and shoots his comrade. Anatoli is left behind on the barge, only to have the Germans blow it up moments later. Thrown clear by the explosion, he is discovered by a group of Orthodox monks, revived, and taken to their monastery.
Thirty-four years later, the survivor is now Father Anatoli, local holy man and overseer of the monastery's boiler house. Believers come from miles around to ask for his prayers and advice – favors often accompanied by his brutally honest assessments of their spiritual conditions. One encounter involves an unmarried and unexpectedly pregnant young woman seeking Anatoli's blessing for an abortion. His vitriolic response comes as a shock to her – and to a number of patrons in the theater, who were left visibly uncomfortable and squirming.
Father Anatoli struggles to cope both with his own unwanted celebrity status and with the corresponding dissatisfaction of his fellow monks. Keenly aware of his unworthiness, he escapes daily to a desolate island where he besieges heaven with prayers for forgiveness for his moment of weakness. As if in direct response to these prayers, his role in leading the community becomes even more prominent – and problematic.
The film expends most of its energy on Father Anatoli, as well as the reactions of his fellow monks to his burgeoning fame. Father Filaret, the monastery's superior, recognizes his sanctity, but struggles with the harsh words Anatoli has for the superior's love of comfort. Father Job, the second-in-command, is jealous not only of Anatoli's fame but of his sanctity as well. And with his customary prickly style, Father Anatoli makes no effort to build bridges. As the story draws to its (somewhat predictable) close, we are given the opportunity to appreciate the essential role Father Anatoli's abrasiveness plays in the lives of all three men, as well as the way in which he serves as a catalyst for true conversion.
It is impossible to watch Lungin's film without thinking of another Russian art-house classic that deals with the struggles of an Orthodox monk: Andrei Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev. Ostrov's penultimate scene is so clearly an homage to the former – which appears on the Vatican's list of important films – that Lungin must have known how immediately his Russian audience would make the comparison.
But Tarkovsky's Rublev is primarily concerned with the role of (possibly Divine) inspiration in the life of the artist, and with the turmoil and self-doubt brought about when one loses that inspiration. Father Anatoli's story revolves around the struggle for forgiveness and sanctification in the life of an ordinary man, highlighting wonderfully the fact that while sanctity is for ordinary people, it is never ordinary itself.
Andrei Zhegalov's superbly stark cinematography is the perfect complement to the film's deliberate pace and somber setting, providing it with a monastic feel that is even further accentuated by Vladimir Martynov's minimalist score – one heavily influenced by Russian Orthodox chant. And Mamonov's Anatoli is as charismatic and magnetic a character as one is likely to see. (Interestingly, Mamonov converted to Russian Orthodoxy in the late 1990s, retreated to an isolated island, and returned precisely to play Father Anatoli. It seems art does indeed imitate life.)
The story leaves a few loose ends pointedly untied, but the questions it raises are ones well worth pondering. How does a saint deal with his own manifest unworthiness? How easy is it for us to dismiss someone who does not fit neatly into our preconceived notions of sanctity? And perhaps most interesting of all, from the film's point of view: What (or who) is the Island?
For those of us who must wait (sometimes in vain) for art-house films to come to them, Ostrov will be available via Netflix on March 4. The timing, and the film's subject, makes it perfect Lenten fare, as well as a movie the whole family can watch in safety. As an added bonus, the next time someone mentions The Island, you'll be able to think of this film instead of the Michael Bay debacle. It is, after all, the little things in life.