The film Ostrov (“The Island”) is one of the greatest recent portrayals of the conflict within the human soul through the eyes of Russian Orthodoxy. It tells the tale of Father Anatoly, a Russian monk living at farthest end of the world, on a lifelong quest for redemption from a dark and bloody past.
A profound tale worthy to be compared to the psychological thrillers of Dostoyevsky, the film was released in 2006 and received praise from then Patriarch Alexei. Not religious? It’s okay, you don’t have to be, in order to watch the film.
If you are interested at all in a story which displays humility in profound suffering, as a person’s soul struggles to atone for past misdeeds, and on how even a slightly mad man can have great virtue and wisdom, this is a film for you. It also explains part of the Russian soul better than almost any other film.
Check it out below with English subtitles. I will attempt to provide a brief review below, without spoiling the amazing story, however, if you want to go into the film as blind as possible, here is your spoiler warning.
“Ostrov” tells the tale of Father Anatoly, who is tormented by a bloody betrayal in the Great Patriotic War (WW2), when a gun was put to his head, and he can hardly forgive himself for what he did.
After a second chance at life, from what should have killed him, he began his life as a monk in the northern reaches of Russia, at the edge of the world where perhaps he can become a better person, even as he pushes his mind to the edges of human sanity.
Father Anatoly is a miracle worker, though he sees himself as the worst among sinners, even if people from far away come to him as a “Holy Elder”.
He embodies the Orthodox concept of a “Fool-for-Christ”, which is a Saint known for their “blessed insanity”, as it were. It is incredibly hard to qualify what this is, but to be sure, it does not mean being insane is a qualification for Sainthood.
Rather, Holy Fools are people who may have seemed crazy to the world, but they, in fact, had deep insight into the human soul, and a true rejection of worldly life to the extent that those of us within the world can’t help but find them a little mad.
Despite his apparent madness, and hysterical habit to cluck like a chicken at times which caused us to burst into laughter, in an otherwise serious moment, he has deep insight into the lives of tortured souls, being one himself.
He is able to help people whom no one else can, because they’ve never been to his level of inner torture. He knows what it means to suffer, and suffering souls can feel that.
Due to his innate ability to understand people, he becomes popular amongst people and renowned as a true miracle worker, becoming unnatural to others not only for his alleged insanity but by virtue of his sanctity. As a result, some clergy become jealous of him, thinking him a prankster and a troublemaker, lacking in discipline compared to those with higher education and academic understanding.
He eventually earns everyone’s love and respect, when they realize he seems crazy to them, only because they haven’t reached his level of holiness yet. There is one scene where he conducts an exorcism that is particularly fascinating.
It happens nothing like in western movies. If this was a western movie, the actress would be convulsing and projectile vomiting everywhere, as if the movie was intended to portray the most profane and demonic behavior of a human being, rather than to show the soul as being deeply tortured by the daemon, as if clinically depressed and mad in ways no one can understand.
Both actors did a phenomenal job in handling the scene, and you can almost feel a dark shadow be lifted from the girl when it was finished, yet in subtle ways.
At this point it is worth noting the cinematography is amazing, a masterpiece of Slavic storytelling, following in the traditions of Gogol and Dostoyevsky, portraying the stark and terrifying realism of the human nature in ways western film, with the focus on the ideal and the dramatic, falls short. The film has a gritty, melancholy setting, enhanced by the frigid Russian north, but maintains a hopeful wonder throughout.
The film is set in a monastery that could represent a variety of places in the Russian North, but was filmed in Kem in the Republic of Karelia, Russian Scandinavia, one of the most beautiful regions of Russia.
One can see the stark similarities between the real life village and the film, proving how the film stayed true to the realism of Dostoyevsky rather than creating some exaggerated backdrop.
When Father Anatoly labors, suffers, cries, prays, and lives his life, you feel transported along with him.
The end of the film, when everything fades into silver mist will have you crying not so much out of sadness, but because you felt privileged to no one such as Father Anatoly.
The actor who played Father Anatoly, Piotr Mamanov was a former rockstar and devout Orthodox Christian, perfect in his role, personifying the concept of a Holy Fool for a generation less familiar with it.
The film will take you on a profound trip through not only the human soul, but the Russian soul as well. If you really want to understand Russia, watching this film will go a long way to helping you, as Russia is truly best understood through the lens of Orthodoxy.
The Russian soul may seem complex and profound, often not so much depressed but melancholy, and able to process joy and great sadness together. The more analytical western mind may find it hard to understand, but the Russian soul, like the film is something that if you follow it to the very end, you just may see a rainbow.