>I Saw Three Girls Come Sailing In

>Before the reader assumes that The Courtier is beginning a post somewhere along the lines of Harold Robbins, allow me to recount a small incident which made me pause and reflect:

On the hunt for Christmas gifts, I headed out from Georgetown to Friendship Heights via Metrobus early Saturday, to try to get ahead of the teeming masses breaking free all over the place to finish their shopping. This particular route leads from the village up to the National Cathedral and then on to Friendship Heights, which is probably THE major retail district in the city. Along the way, the bus stops in front of the main gates of the mammoth Russian Embassy compound, which looms like a giant white fortress on a hill overlooking NW Washington.

Just before we came to a stop across the street from the embassy, three girls – or I should say, young women – ran across Wisconsin Avenue from the gates and boarded the bus. They were casually but respectably and fashionably dressed, and were laughing and chattering in Russian (of which I understand a few words.) At one point, the middle girl reached into her bag to dig around for something, and was handing the contents to the other girls to hold. Among the items removed from her purse was a small, leatherbound book – probably a prayer book – with a gilt clasp and a Russian Orthodox cross stamped in gold on the cover. They later alighted at Friendship Heights as well, and made their way into one of the shopping malls.

The incident with the prayer book, as small as it was, was a little reminder of how much the world can change to our surprise, over time, and with the power of prayer to ask for God’s grace. I am an old enough resident of Washington to remember when the Communist symbols came down from the gates of the Russian Embassy, and the Romanov double eagle took its place. Currently, the twin bronze plaques with the ancient symbol of the Tsars of Muscovy are decorated with pine boughs and ribbon; the symbolic importance of this was not lost on me, as a student of history.

Now here, we were, some twenty years on, and young ladies from the Russian Embassy are not only going Christmas shopping, but at least one of them is to some degree practicing the faith of her ancestors. This is an extraordinary turn of events which our parents, and theirs, simply could not have foreseen at the height of the Cold War. Indeed, many people shut their eyes and deliberately chose not to see.

At the beginning of the Russian Revolution in 1917, Moscow was filled with many hundreds of churches, monasteries, and chapels in active use; primarily Russian Orthodox, of course, but also other Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants. There is a huge debate over exactly how many there were; some Russian Orthodox claim there were over 1600, but that seems unlikely. A more reasonable survey suggests something less than half that figure – which is still an enormous amount.

Take a look at this table and you will see that, according to a recent four-volume historical data survey, more accurate estimates are that there were 848 active, operating churches in all denominations known to exist at the end of the reign Tsar Nicholas II. By 1990, just before the collapse of the Soviet Union, 433 churches had been completely destroyed, 263 were still standing but had been put to other uses, and there were only 171 operating churches. As usual, hell hath no fury like a Leftist bent on destroying religious liberty.

And of course, one of the great tragedies of the Russian Revolution was the murder of the Royal Family. As someone who became hooked on Russian history, literature, architecture, music, and so on at a very young age – having for example inhaled Robert K. Massie’s extraordinary “Nicholas and Alexandra” when I was about ten years old – I have always had a very soft spot for the last of the Romanovs. One can debate whether Nicholas himself should have been prosecuted by the Communist government, but there was absolutely no reason to slaughter his wife and children.

Now, nearly 100 years after their death, the great-grandchildren of their subjects work in a building which, though built by those who murdered them, has at least been rehabilitated to reflect Russia’s history and traditions. Christmas is once again officially celebrated, a Russian girl working at the embassy can carry her prayer book and not be reprimanded or turned over to the police, and churches are being built all over Moscow; indeed, 200 churches are slated to be completed by the end of next year. What an extraordinary turn of events, in our own lifetime, and what a thing to be grateful for this Christmas: that the Birth of Our Lord is not only being openly and joyfully celebrated by the Russian people, but that they are returning to Christianity in such numbers that they cannot build churches fast enough to hold them all.

Nicholas II and Alexandra with their five children

Review: Ostrov

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.

A still from the film, shot in Karelia on the White Sea