Pavel Lungin’s The Island or in Russian: Oстров (2006) is the tale of a Russian holy man named Anatoly (Petyr Mamonov) who works as the stoker at a monastery on an unidentified and barren Northern Russian coast. The movie begins with Anatoly and his commanding officer Tikhon (younger version played by Aleksei Zelensky) working aboard a Soviet coal barge during World War II. The Germans capture their ship and give Anatoly two options: either shoot his commander or be shot. In a fit of cowardice Anatoly shoots Tikhon, who falls overboard. The Nazis then leave Anatoly to die on a nearby island, but a small cloister of monks rescue him and he lives with them for the remainder of the movie.
Thirty years later Anatoly has converted and still lives with the monks, but does not live in the prescribed monastic lifestyle. He sleeps in the coal, never bathes, and constantly works with laypeople from around the region – giving prophecies, healing people, and performing exorcisms. Despite this, his guilty conscience consumes him, driving him nearly to madness and forcing him to row out and pray alone on an abandoned island near the monastery.
While this does not seem like a recipe for excitement: with just a single setting, muted colors, dim lighting, and several middle aged men living together, the film manages to combine an intense psychological drama with a truly inspiring story of faith and forgiveness into a masterpiece of cinema. Indeed, the film has won several awards including “Best film” at the 2006 Moscow Premiere festival, “Best film” at the 2007 Chinese Golden Eagle Awards, and “Best picture” at Russia’s most prestigious award ceremony, the Nika Awards in 2007.
Of course, the film has some highly religious themes and seems to really resonate with Christians of all denominations including this Catholic blogger, The Rad Trad, who praises the film’s portrayal of a “fool for Christ”; however, I believe the film’s brilliance lies in the universality of its message and the outstanding performances of the actors. Petyr Mamonov (a truly remarkable artist, here is a good article about him) provides a blend of ridiculous humor and serious dialogue in his performance as Father Anatoly, without which the film likely would not have worked at all. Supporting actors include Viktor Sukhorukov and Dmitrii Diuzhev, famous for their roles in the Russian gangster films Brother (1997) and Brother 2 (2000).
The Island presents all the ironies of the nominally atheist Soviet state along with those of Christianity in a way which any viewer can understand, and does it all without dragging the plot or getting too preachy. I highly recommend it even to those who don’t know Russian, its subtle beauty and award winning performances by the actors are well worth seeing for anyone. Best of all, the film can be found with English subtitles for free on Youtube.