It is very rare indeed, dear reader, that I can wholeheartedly and unreservedly recommend a film with Christian themes. So many attempts at creating such movies produce mediocre results (e.g. “The Nativity Story”), or come off as cloying and off-putting even to those who happen to be believing Christians, but have a somewhat more attuned appreciation for good cinema. It is also very rare that a film comes along which is not only completely and apologetically Christian, but holds a universal appeal even to those who are outside of Christianity. The Danish film “Babette’s Feast” is an example; the Franco-German film “Into Great Silence” is another.
And now, gentle reader, we must add the Russian film “Ostrov” or “Island” to that list. “Ostrov” tells the fictional story of a monk living in a remote monastery in far NW Russia. It is all the more appropriate that as I write this review, today is the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, one of the great exemplars in Western Christianity of a “Fool for Christ”.
As the film begins, Anatoly is a young mate on a tugboat captured by the Nazis during World War II. The Germans rig the boat with explosives, and force Anatoly to shoot his captain in order to save his own life. After the explosion, Anatoly is washed up on the shores of a barren island, where he is rescued by a group of Russian Orthodox monks. Time goes by into the Brezhnev era, when persecution and intolerance of the Church was at a particularly bad point, and the now-Father Anatoly has become something of a celebrity because of his reputation for holiness. Yet he is also an unconventional character compared to the other monks, by turns liable to fly into a rage, or to play what seems like a prank, or to sing aloud in the middle of the night.
Father Anatoly spends much of his time on an island near the monastery, walking its circumference and praying that he be forgiven for his sins. When the other monks go to the chapel to pray the Divine Office, he stays in his cell and prays by himself, not wanting to bring his dirty exterior and his sinfulness before them. When he is not doing this, he tends the monastery’s boiler room, and keeps mainly to himself.
As the film develops, it becomes clear that Father Anatoly has been given some extraordinary gifts of clairvoyance and healing, which he does not speak about openly. In fact, sometimes he pretends that he is not Father Anatoly so that those who come to him will not pester him with requests for miracles. We also learn that he is very familiar with the Devil, for he reveals later in the film that he is constantly under attack by demons and knows them well; this is a torment which, again, he does not share with others.
The first scene in which he interacts with a member of the laity is something that one cannot imagine being shot in, for example, American cinema today. A young woman comes to Father Anatoly because she has become pregnant out of wedlock, and asks him to give her a blessing so that she can obtain an abortion. Father Anatoly becomes enraged at her daring to ask him to religiously sanction a murder. He then tells her to keep the child, for it will be a “golden boy” and provide her with great love and comfort. She is eventually persuaded to keep the child, but at the end of their interview he quite literally chases her away, shouting “Now get off my island!”
Similarly, a woman brings her crippled son to Father Anatoly to seek healing for the boy’s incurable necrosis of the hip. After the boy is miraculously healed through prayer, Father Anatoly says that the boy must remain overnight in the monastery and receive Holy Communion the next day in order to be completely recovered. The mother refuses as she has a job she needs to go to, and the two depart the island. Father Anatoly then leaps into the sea after them and drags the boy ashore so that he can receive the Eucharist.
The other monks at the monastery do not know what to make of their odd brother any more than the laity do. Father Anatoly’s relationship with his abbot Father Filaret turns out to be a profound teaching moment about the latter’s inability to detach himself from earthly comforts. In addition Father Anatoly’s long-standing animosity with Father Iov, who is both personally vain and jealous of Father Anatoly, is woven like a thread throughout the entire film. The relationship between these two, in particular, is characterized from the beginning as that of Cain and Abel, but ends in a way which is far more redemptive, and provides a stunning visual conclusion to the film.
I don’t want to analyze all of the miracles and other moments in this film, for there are many more, and I could probably write a lengthy essay on the visual majesty of the end of this masterwork alone. Suffice to say, even though it is not a Roman Catholic film, the concepts and practices embraced by our Eastern brothers and sisters will resonate strongly with and seem familiar to Western Catholics who know of the lives of figures such as St. Francis, St. Benedict Labre, St. Philip Neri, and others. A film like this, if shown to an ecumenical gathering of Eastern and Western Christians, could serve as a wonderful plank in building the bridge of reconciliation, as we work toward the reunification of the Western and Eastern Churches.
That aside, I daresay however that even those of my readers who are not Christians (or even theists) will find this film to not only be visually superb, a sort of symphony of grays and blues, but also a compelling study of the value of forgiveness in the human experience. It tells a very good story, it never drags, and Father Anatoly always surprises us, just when we think we know what he is going to do next. Whether you are a religious or non-religious person, you will not regret taking the time to see this treasure of contemporary cinema.