Issue 55 (2017)
Nikolai Dostal’: The Monk and the Demon (Monakh i bes, 2016)
reviewed by Greg Dolgopolov © 2017
A raggedy monk limps along the high stone wall of a monastery in the drizzling rain. Every few steps he jumps from pain as spontaneous internal combustion burns his cassock. After his knocking on the heavy wooden door of the monastery is answered, he collapses on the ground in flames. So begins this absurdly comic tale of the battle between good and evil, monks and the institutions of faith and miracles and the mundane. Inspired by the story of the monk Ivan of Novgorod, who lived in the 12th century, Nikolai Dostal’’s new film is an elaboration of the life of the monk Ivan and his complex battle with his demon. As Aleksandr Timofeev, deputy editor of the Russian National Line journal explained: “In the original tale, Ivan of Novgorod caught the devil during prayers in his washing basin. When the devil cried out begging for freedom, Ivan agreed in exchange for being taken on the devil’s back in one night to the Tomb of Christ the Savior in Jerusalem. The devil kept his side of the bargain but started to enact small acts of vengeance on Ivan such as throwing women’s undergarments into Ivan’s dormitory as if to prove that he is a sinner. His fellow monks were drawn in to the deception and placed Ivan on a raft and pushed him out into the river so that he could float far from them. But the raft floated back to shore against a fierce current proving the innocence of the monk” (Timofeev 2016). Dostal’ commissioned screenwriter Iurii Arabov to adapt this tale. The focus of the narrative became the battle between an imperfect, struggling monk and an urbane but sensitive devil. It is a sardonic analysis of the battle between good and evil that takes a much more sophisticated approach than the standard binary, zero-sum schema that has become common in recent cinema.
Dostal’ and Arabov’s film is set in the 1830s during the reign of Nicholas I in a male monastery that stands amidst a verdant countryside far from the capital. The Monk and the Devil is a comical, fantastical parable steeped in detailed observation of the life and practices of a secluded religious life. A disheveled monk, Ivan Semenov (a remarkable performance by Timofei Tribuntsev) is attacked by all manner of fire and brimstone from an invisible source. He begs the abbot of the monastery to provide him with shelter. Speaking provocatively, in rapid-fire riddles, he is strange and boastful and exhibits no sense of kowtowing to the authority of the monastery’s head (Boris Kamorzin). The abbot is suspicious of this strange monk sensing in his behavior an ungovernable devilry. In order to help Ivan find his faith, the abbot sets him a series of difficult chores. Ivan performs miracles in completing them—empting a well that should have taken two weeks in a day, clears a section of forest in hours and when tasked to catch some fish for dinner brings back a monster fish that would feed the entire monastery for days. The monks are suspicious of Ivan, fearing his deeds are devil’s work, but important, powerful people want to exploit his miracles and listen attentively to his surprising insights on how to govern Russia. Subsequently an explanation for his miracles emerges. Ivan is inhabited by a devil by the name of Legion (Georgii Fetisov) who seeks to influence the powerful through the “saintly” Ivan. The stylish devil ridicules Ivan’s faith and asceticism, but also performs useful magic to tempt the monk’s faith. The monk resists, but promises to bow down before Legion and give him his soul in exchange for a trip to the Holy Land. The devil agrees and takes Ivan on his back to Jerusalem even though the forces of evil are not supposed to venture there. In Jerusalem Ivan is disgusted by the cheap trade in Christian souvenirs (nails and wreaths of thorns) and attacks the traders, but he is savagely beaten by the people behind the market. His life is only saved by Legion’s magic as he undergoes a lengthy recovery. At the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, at the source of Christian faith, Ivan gains his ultimate wish, but Legion loses his magic. Far from fulfilled, the two men return to Russia where they are taken for beggars and thrown in jail. The story ends when Legion goes to the monastery where Ivan had initially sought shelter and pleads for the opportunity to work there and become a disciple. It is a story of ultimate transformation about how a flawed man resisted a devil’s temptations and how a devil became human.
The theme of dark spirits using humans as a form of macabre transportation has a long history. Martin Luther explores Satan riding the human as a beast of burden; riding man wherever he chooses to highlight an absence of freedom. In Gogol’s variation on folk-tale motifs, a witch rides on a terrified monk’s back in the story “Viy,” while in “Christmas Eve” the blacksmith Vakula rides to St Petersburg on a scared and compliant devil’s back. What lies at the heart of these tales is a combination of fear and an absence of free will. It is a desire to control devilry and a recognition that devilry does reside in humans. It is an ideal scenario for oppression and control by reinforcing through folk narratives the notion that humans have no free will and will be ridden by all manner of dark forces unless they submit to being ridden where and how God wills. It is a proclamation that humans have no free will and are governed by whoever controls them. What is interesting about The Monk and the Demon is that there is less of a separation between good and evil than would be expected and much more interconnection. The monk rides the devil in equal measure to being ridden by the devil. There is equality and interconnection between the two far more so than with the rest of the world. They care for one another when they are sick. While they do try to transform one another to their own world view and tastes, they ultimately need one another. Unexpectedly they become close friends. The sophistication of the film’s narrative battle between good and evil is that there is no battle—good and evil have poured into one another to form an absurd cocktail where anything is possible without conflict; where love and care are far more meaningful. There is a wonderful moment when Legion is nearly dead, unconscious and Ivan holds him in his arms and tries to resurrect him. He pleads with him to live, “We are always together. I can’t go on without you. We have always been together.” The devil and the monk are intricately interconnected.
The film is remarkable for its complex thematic material that mixes religion and folk tales in a provocative thesis on transformation. The quotidian world of the monastery is presented in detail, providing a strong historical consciousness that belies the otherwise farcical qualities of the miracle works. We see them from the perspective of the doubting monks thereby making the comic elements organic. Aleksandr Sokolov’s musical composition is surprising, especially around the moments of Ivan’s miracle work with its sparse, raw and rhythmic approach to the mystical moment (very different to the compositional choices made in similar films). As a film that is generically in two parts, starting from comedy and moving towards a parable, the brightest moments are the scenes of Ivan’s miracle work in the context of performing the incredulous abbot’s practical challenges – emptying the well, catching an enormous rare fish with a big nose and sad human face that is then served up a delicacy for the unexpected visit by Tsar Nicholas. These scenes in particular capture the absurdity of miracles in the context of their religious observation. One scene in particular captures this incongruity. The abbot and his assistant go to spy on Ivan performing his chores through a window of the laundry. They see him industriously ironing the monk’s bed-sheets using his buttocks to steam them perfectly flat and crisp. Their shock at what they see is priceless as they decide that these sort of miracles are too dangerous for the other monks. The mix of folk tale and farce in conflict with religious institutions feels playfully sacrilegious. However against this the final scenes when Ivan and Legion return from Jerusalem to a Russia, that is now seemingly more brutal than before, are tragic and highlight the lack of space for spirituality and difference. At the end all the magic and miracles are gone and it becomes a story of two friends bound to one another eternally, but both thoroughly misunderstood by the people around them.
Faith and Film
The film premiered at the Moscow International Film Festival in June and was the only Russian film in competition. It did not win the main prize, but did win the audience award. It was created by two former collaborators: Nikolai Dostal’ and Iurii Arabov who had previously worked on the 13 part series, Lenin’s Testament (Zaveshchanie Lenina, 2007). Arabov, one of the most respected screenwriters in Russia today works regularly with Aleksandr Sokurov. He is no stranger to writing about religion and faith having explored the theme in Kirill Serebrennikov’s Yuriev Day (Iur’ev den’, 2008), Sokurov’s Faust (2011) and Andrei Proshkin’s Orleans (2015). Similarly Nikolai Dostal’ became renowned for his examination of religious history in the television series, Raskol (2011) about the schism of the Russian Orthodox Church in the 17th century. He has also featured a number of damaged or perhaps saintly young men in his recent films such as the somewhat delusional Peter, the would-be policeman in Peter on the Way to Heaven (Petia po doroge v tsarstvie nebesnoe, 2008). Arabov and Dostal’’s intention was to develop a story where evil is destroyed not through conflict, but by good deeds and to show how we can love one another and especially our enemies (Gorenko 2016). At a time of a heightened awareness of the connection between politics and religion and the problematic audience responses to Serebrennikov’s The Student (Uchenik, 2016), it is refreshing to see a complex, multifarious approach to religion and the Church in Dostal’’s film. There are clear resonances with Lungin’s The Island (Ostrov, 2006) and especially Petr Mamonov’s performance as the monk resonates in Ivan’s crankily obsessive commitment to doing good deeds as portrayed with a manic possession by the Timofei Tribuntsev (who incidentally played the young Anatolii in The Island).
The film is not overtly anti-clerical. The monastery is represented as a multi-layered social organism that is inhabited by kind, thoughtful monks, but also miserly, small-minded brothers. While the abbot is skeptical and somewhat alarmed by Ivan, he is ultimately supportive with his challenges and attempts to accommodate the strange monk. And in contradiction to his bespectacled advisor he does offer shelter to all manner of bedraggled folk, even a former devil. If there is a tepid criticism of the Church it is in the form of investigating it as an institution with the representation of the abbot and his management team’s focus on the pragmatics of running the monastery, the annual budget, food supplies and chores above more spiritual pursuits. The management of the Church is shown to be guided by self-interest with skepticism towards miracles as they seem to interfere with the monastery’s effort to lead a peaceful, structured life. Indeed if this is criticism, it is also a detailed representation of the day to day functioning of a monastery that is unvarnished and shows complex personalities at work in dramatic conflict with one another. However as the film won first prize at the “Pokrov” Kiev Orthodox Film Festival in October 2016, it suggests that the Orthodox community are largely supportive of the film. The Monk and the Demon did not have a major box office impact with its release in September 2016, but it is an important addition to the growing number of films that explore religion and faith with its original and sophisticated portrayal of the interconnected conflict between good and evil and the use of devilry as transportation.
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Timofeev, Aleksandr. 2016. “Besovskoe navazhdenie”, Russkya narodnaia liniia 3 November.
Gorenko, Elena. 2016. “Nikolai Dostal’: ia odolel besa.” Interview, Tsargrad 25 October.
The Monk and the Demon, Russia, 2016
Color, 113 min.
Director: Nikolai Dostal
Script: Iurii Arabov
Producers : Igor Tolstunov, Sergei Kozlov, Aleksandr Dostal
Cinematographer: Levan Kapanadze
Composer: Aleksandr Sokolov
Production Design: Pavel Parkhomenko, Maia Martianova
Cast: Timofei Tribuntsev, Georgii Fetisov, Boris Kamorzin, Roman Madianov, Nikita Tarasov, Sergei Barkovskii
Production: Etalon Film, Profit Cinema
Distributor: Nashe Kino
Nikolai Dostal’: The Monk and the Demon (Monakh i bes, 2016)
reviewed by Greg Dolgopolov © 2017