12 October, 2007


Why did Cain murder Abel?

Don't you insult my intelligence, too!
The year is 1976. On an island (остров) in the North Sea lies a monastery that has avoided the wrath of the atheist regime in Moscow. The monks who live there have to put up with Fr. Anatoliy, a holy fool* who doesn't do anything properly. He insists on sleeping in a cell in the coal house instead of with the other monks; at Liturgy he usually sings loudly and off-key and sometimes faces the wrong direction to pray. If you ask him a question, he often answers with another.

He is popular. The Russian faithful take boats to the island in order to ask him questions. At the coal house, they meet the main character of the film, Fr. Anatoliy's servant, a man dressed in rags whose mean, scrabbly face is covered in coal dust. The servant acts as a go-between for the petitioners and Fr. Anatoliy.

This man will never win any awards for sensitivity or tact.
You heard, right? Fr. Anatoliy said that he cannot offer for your husband prayers for the dead, because he is alive. Now he is ill. [He was taken prisoner during the war, and ended up in France.] You have to go to France, nurse him, and close his eyes with your hands. Why are you looking at me? You have to do this.

How can I go to France, Father?

And why not? Good people live in France, too.

It isn't possible; it's a capitalist country! They won't give me a visa!

Don't be afraid. If Fr. Anatoliy said you must go, then they will give you a visa.

How can I leave? I have a house, I have animals, I have a boar and we have to slaughter him soon!

Sell everything. Absolutely everything.


Everything. Absolutely everything.

(The woman begins to weep pitifully. The servant walks up to her and puts his arm on her shoulder.)

Listen. If you sell, you won't regret it. I have heard that for your hog, they will give very good money. I'd buy it myself, if I were allowed to eat meat. That's the truth.

Are you torturing me, sir?

Didn't you say that you loved your husband? Go and do as Fr. Anatoliy has prophesied.

But... but...

Look, don't torture me. Just go.
Despite his gruff exterior, the servant nurses affection for the souls who come to speak with his Master, and usually they walk away satisfied, or at least in tears of relief.

The servant is a near-casualty of war. The monks rescued him from the icy shore after the German navy sank a supply ship in 1942. He isn't very proud of his past; he was a weak and shallow man in 1942, who sniveled before his German captors. He hysterically claimed ignorance when they demanded, Wo ist der kapitän? but at the sight of a gun he climbed a coal pile and dug the captain out. He carries a weight of guilt from the consequences of that treachery, despite the monks' attempts to convince him that God can forgive all sins.

The pace of the film is deliberate, but not too slow. The monks are portrayed as real human beings: flawed, but dealing with the challenge of their vocation with a sense of humor. Many of the conversations reminded me of my days chasing a religious vocation, whether in seminary or visiting religious houses.
(the Abbot, after being startled) How did you monks learn to be so quiet? You always come so quietly that I cannot hear you.

If you want, I will put horseshoes on my boots.

Don't you dare. This is a monastery, not a stable. If everyone will put horseshoes on their boots, there will be a constant clop-clop-clop like a racetrack. (both snicker, one makes the sign of the cross) And after that, I will have to place bets on you. Why have you come?
The film isn't out on DVD in the United States yet, so don't go looking for it. Just remember the name: "Ostrov", or "The Island". My wife's family mailed her a Russian-only version, lacking even Russian subtitles, and my wife insisted that I watch it with her. (I think she's trying to convert me. Don't let her know that I'm on to her, though. Shhhhh.) My Russian is still far from acceptable, so she had to stop it every few minutes to translate something for me.

The film features an exorcism, but it's very different from any exorcism I've seen in Western films. It's spooky, but not grotesque; it's moving, but not saccharine. It serves as a narrative device to bring the film to a climax that is entirely interior.
Why are you smiling?

Angels are singing in my soul.
I wondered whether, as his death drew near, Fr. Anatoliy's servant felt some wistful longing for the "normal" life that circumstance had stolen from him. Would he feel as if God had tricked him? For a moment, his face assumed a look of sadness and, perhaps, desire. I didn't have to wonder long about the answer.

There is no Deus ex machina to rescue the main character, no in-your-face proof of God's existence, no particularly blunt message to deliver. It is the story of several souls' struggle with holiness. You can watch the entire film and come away believing that the main characters are deluded losers wasting their lives. But to someone interested in the spiritual struggle, this film won't be a waste of time. It has a message to broadcast, but it doesn't beat the viewer over the head with it. Therein lies its greatest charm.

*Holy Fools: Very important personalities in Russian Christianity. For example, they play important roles in Dostoevsky's Demons and The Brothers Karamazov.

Note: The director was also responsible for Tycoon: a New Russian, whose themes (and images) were somewhat more profane. This must be the sacred converse.

Note: According to IMDB, the actor who portrayed Fr. Anatoliy's servant has since become a hermit.

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