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Ostrov (The Island)

Posted by martinteller on June 21, 2013

Anatoly (Timofey Tribuntsev) is on board a captured Russian barge in 1942.  The Nazis order him to reveal where the captain is hiding, and fearing for his life, he does.  Then they order him to shoot and kill his captain, and again fearing for his life, he complies.  The Nazis depart and blow up the boat, leaving Anatoly for dead.  But he washes up on an island populated by monks.  34 years later, Anatoly (Pyotr Mamonov) is now “Father Anatoly”, but among the Orthodox order his methods are very unorthodox indeed.  Tormented by his sins, he lives in the coal bin (developing respiratory problems) and prays constantly for forgiveness.  He never bathes, he doesn’t properly follow procedures, and he spends much of his time among the “laymen” who believe him to be a prophet with healing powers.  Most of all, he plays pranks on the other monks, particularly Father Job (Dmitriy Dyuzhev).  Anatoly has an ally in Father Filaret (Viktor Sukhorukov) but even Filaret’s patience is wearing thin.

I am a diehard atheist, but that doesn’t prevent me from appreciating films with Christian themes, any more than not believing in The Force prevents me from appreciating Star Wars.  Anatoly is quite eccentric as a religious figure, but there’s a method — and perhaps a true spiritual calling — to his madness.  For him, salvation is not achieved through ritual but through a process of sacrifice and suffering.  It’s never a simple matter of saying the right words and making the right gestures.  Faith isn’t just something you say, it’s something to be put to rigorous testing.

And he reserves the harshest trials for himself, seeking forgiveness for three decades.  His humility is not a matter of vanity, as Job charges him with, but truly dragging himself down and stripping away anything between himself and God.  Or perhaps I’m reading it wrong… I’m no student of theology.  But he’s an intriguing character, with a performance by Mamonov that strikes a perfect tone.  Never noble in his spiritual deeds, never too nutty or quirky, never the all-knowing wise sage.  He has a mischievous twinkle but it’s tempered by the burden of sin he carries at all times.  And in the third act, the film raises new questions about sin and forgiveness, which I can’t go into detail about.  It’s a turn in the story that I’m not sure I’m on board with… in a way, I expected it but I was also surprised the movie went there.  But I think it’s pulled off without undermining anything, but instead opening up new avenues of thought.

The only real problem (besides possibly that third act turn of events) is that none of the other cast members is nearly as good as Mamonov.  I’d even say most of the performances are on the poor side.  But Mamonov is the focus, and he carries the film beautifully.  I’ve noticed that many complain about the film being slow, but I had no problems whatsoever with the pacing.  I thought it moved quite swiftly, actually.  Perhaps I’m just used to slow movies.  Rating: Very Good (84)


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