Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Movie Review: The Island

This Christmas I received the usual gifts: clothing, some electronics, books, chocolate, and some films. One gift, a film called Island, particularly caught my attention this year. The Island, or "Ostrov" in Russian, is a Russian-language film, mercifully subtitled in English, about a monk on an obscure, small Russian island in the year 1975.

During the Second World War a coal stoker name Anatoly who worked the boilers of a Russian freighter found himself confronted with German boarders who gave him a choice: shoot your captain, Tikhon, and have a chance to live after your freighter is scuttled, or die now. Anatoly takes the first option, shooting Captain Tikhon, whose body falls overboard, and finds himself washed ashore near a Russian Orthodox monastery after the scuttle charges fire.

Three decades later brother Anatholy continues to live at the monastery, leading a life more ascetic than that found at the most severe Carthusian Charterhouses. He lives in the monastery's boiler room, wheeling coal to and fro throughout the day and sleeping on heaps of the mineral by night. Throughout the day he walks the island, and a small neighboring island, reciting the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner) and asking for Tikhon to prayer for his soul. In the morning Anatoly awakes from the coal piles, veers to a side room, and, before an icon of Christ, praises the Holy Trinity, the Virgin, and asks for the repose of the "warrior Tikhon."

Fr Anatoly with child!
Very quickly, we get the impression that Anatoly is a fool, a "fool for God," much in the vein or St. Francis, St. Philip Neri, and many others helplessly in love with God. Anatoly's reputation for holiness abounds mainland Russia and everyday many come to seek his counsel, although Anatoly often deflects attention by pretending "Fr Anatoly" is unavailable and that he, a menial coal stoker, might provide a word or two. Our first sighting of Anatoly after the War comes in 1975, when a pregnant Russian girl comes to ask Anatoly what she should do about her delicate condition. She prepares for her visit by bringing a wad of cash in hopes that the monk will give an apodictic blessing for an abortion. Fr Anatoly was unavailable to talk with her, but the stoker, who has stuffed a pillow under his shirt to give a pregnant appearance, scolds her and accuses her of attempting to bribe a monk into condoning murder. She rebukes Anatoly by asking what he would know about her state. He replies that he knows what it is like to kill another person and tells her to "get off [his] island!"

Like many other "fools for Christ" Anatoly is something of a blissfully ignorant rebel. During the Divine Liturgy and the Divine Office he often prays facing some direction other than the altar, on one occasion towards the house of the prior of the monastery, which Anatoly has secretly set aflame in hopes of teaching the worldly prior detachment.

Anatoly sees the spiritual reality of things where others might only hope for glimpses. The prior, without a house now, moves into the boiler room with Anatoly, boasting that he might live as a hermit!—although with a luxurious blanket and leather boots lined with wool from the Patriarch. Anatoly "exorcises" the prior's demons by burning his boots and coat, and filling the room with so much smoke that they comes within a breath of death. The prior later thanks him, realizing that he has not led a penitential life focused on God, but one of earthly attachments.

The climax of the film comes when a prominent admiral comes to the island monastery with his sick daughter. Anatoly learns that the admiral is "Admiral Tikhon Petrovich, his old captain. Anatoly, withholding his own identity, tells the admiral that the angels are rejoicing in the admiral's visit. Anatholy tells the admiral his daughter is not sick, but demonically possessed by a devil familiar to him. He takes the admiral's daughter to an island where he implores God to exorcise the girl, which He eventually does. Upon returning to the island Anatoly reveals to Tikhon his identity and implores forgiveness, which Tikhon concedes he granted many years ago, presuming Anatoly dead.

Anatoly, whose purpose in life was sanctification and penance, no longer has cause to live and, vested in pure and angelic white, climbs into a wooden box and dies. Our last sight in the film is one of monks, including one who could never quite take a liking to Anatoly, bringing the deceased's coffin to land for burial under the sign of the Cross.

The main theme of this movie is not forgiveness or miracles, but penance. Anatoly is often invited to live with the prior and recover his failing health, but he prefers to sleep on coals and pass his time praying the Jesus Prayer. Moreover, he reproaches those unwilling to live a penitential or God-centered life, even his own prior.

Would God exorcise a demon or tell of the survival in France of a would-be-widow's husband for any old priest? Probably not. Anatoly's forgiveness and satisfaction, and presumable entrance into heaven, only come as consequence of his penance, a penance which takes his entire life.

No penance, no peace. No suffering, no real love. No Cross, no heaven.

It is a great film and, despite its length, never really drags, as there are few enough characters that the movie can change focus several times in the course of two hours without veering away from its main point.

If you want to get some idea of what a "fool for God" might look like. get the movie or watch it. It is on Youtube.

The trailer:

First part of the whole movie here:

Happy St. Stephen's day!

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