Pavel Lungin: The Island (Ostrov, 2006)

reviewed by Mark Lipovetsky© 2007

The Importance of Being Pious: Pavel Lungin’s The Island

Pavel Lungin’s new film The Island, starring Petr Mamonov as a “holy monk,” has already gained phenomenal success in Russia. It was nominated in every category for the Golden Eagle, the national award in cinematography established by Nikita Mikhalkov to rival the Nika. The film opened the Kinotavr Festival of Russian Films and closed the Venice International Film Festival. It was screened during the Russian cinema week in New York. It was awarded the grand-prix and the best actor prize at the Magnificent Seven, the film program organized by the Moscow tabloid newspaper Moskovskii komsomolets. No real professional prizes yet, but I am sure they are coming.

The Island was praised by intellectuals and clergy alike. The latter fact is especially curious. NTV news service reports:

Pavel Lungin’s The Island was shown in Voronezh with no free seats [pri polnom anshlage]. The local clergy booked the entire movie theater… A day before the first show, the Metropolitan of Voronezh and Borisoglebsk gave an order to post the ad for the coming premier next to the schedule of worship in all of the city’s forty churches. The parish was surprised: never before were films advertised in churches… Father Andrei, a secretary of the eparchy comments: “The Metropolitan has watched the film and, therefore, we recommend it to the clergy and the parish.” … The show started with a prayer… Prior to the screening everybody crossed themselves… Petr Mamonov, the actor: “To me it means that our church is alive.” The clergy thanked Mamonov. By saying that “He played a monk so truthfully,” they were asking whether he knew the prayers or had learnt them specifically for the role. Mamonov: “I didn’t learn them, but I was praying in earnest. The struggle with sin is too familiar to me.”

Furthermore, the site published an extended review by Igor' Vinnichenko (initially posted in the internet journal of the Sretenskii monastery), in which the film is praised in the following terms:

It is impossible to miss the keen sense of piety that accompanies the entire film and for which we longed so much. We hope that now the theme of Russian Orthodox spirituality will find its dignified place in national cinematography and that matters concerning spiritual development will finally become a priority for contemplation.

To me, the very style of this authoritative blessing is reminiscent of the programmatic (ustanovochnye) articles in Pravda from the years when most of The Island is set—the 1970s. And I have no doubt, that “matters concerning spiritual development” will indeed “become a priority for contemplation.” This apparently means that films depicting Russian Orthodox saints and holy old men will be produced with the same frequency as films about devoted communists were produced back in the 1970s-1980s. In this context, the first screening of The Island in the presence of clergy, a screening orchestrated by prayers, looks like a re-make of an “all-Union premiere” of the newest propaganda film in the late Soviet Union.

Lungin’s film is based on a script by Dmitrii Sobolev, a young graduate of Iurii Arabov’s course at the Moscow Institute of Filmmaking; actually, the script was Sobolev’s graduation project. Famous actors—Viktor Sukhorukov, Dmitrii Diuzhev, Iurii Kuznetsov, and Nina Usatova—construct a frame for Mamonov’s shining performance as the protagonist, Father Anatolii. It is worth mentioning that Mamonov, the former soloist of the rock-band Zvuki Mu and star of Lungin’s first film Taxi-Blues (1990), left Moscow more than ten years ago for a village, where he found God and spiritual revival. One of the best contemporary composers, Vladimir Martynov wrote a solemn score for The Island, providing fine accompaniment to Andrei Zhegalov’s filming of the stern landscapes of the Russian North, with its snow-covered rocky islands, icy water, and white skies.

The film opens with a war sequence, in which a young Russian sailor is forced by a Nazi officer to shoot the skipper of his barge in exchange for his own life. Then the action moves to 1974, to the remote Orthodox monastery in the same area where the war episode happened. The former young sailor, now Father Anatolii, lives here as a monk. Apparently known as a holy man, he is visited by many people seeking spiritual and medical help. A pregnant unmarried girl (Iana Esipovich) comes to him seeking advice about an abortion and Anatolii yells at her, forbidding her even to think about such a sin, and prophesying that she will not get married, with or without a child. A widow (Nina Usatova) comes to him asking about her husband who went missing in action thirty years ago. In response, the Holy Father convinces her that her husband is well and living in France. A woman brings a boy whose legs are paralyzed and Anatolii not only takes care of the boy but also reprimands the woman who is anxiously rushing to return to her job.

Yet, the Holy Father is closer to a holy fool—while giving his advice, he pretends to be speaking with the “real” Father Anatolii who is behind the door; while praying in church, he turns in the direction opposite to the rest of the clergy. His acts are eccentric, but they always contain a spiritual meaning, which is laid bare by Anatolii’s meek abbot, Father Filaret (Viktor Sukhorukov). In a particularly important episode, Anatolii deliberately burns the abbot’s favorite boots, then almost chokes him to death with smoke in his locked boiler shed, and finally throws Filaret’s favorite blanket into the lake. Shaken, but not stirred, Filaret readily interprets these acts as a demonstration of the weakness of his own faith and thanks Anatolii for the liberation of his spirit from earthly attachments. Anatolii’s eccentric behavior, as well as his popularity, makes another inhabitant of the island, the hieromonk Father Job (Dmitrii Diuzhev) envious, and he persistently tries to undermine Anatolii’s greatness. Yet, Anatolii himself is unhappy for a different reason—for thirty plus years, he has been carrying the burden of guilt for killing an innocent man.

However, the victim of his cowardice turns out to be alive: the skipper was only wounded and was promptly saved afterwards. Now an admiral, Tikhon Petrovich (Iurii Kuznetsov) comes to Anatolii with his mentally unstable daughter (Viktoriia Isakova). The Holy Father not only exorcizes a demon from the young woman’s soul and body, but also immediately recognizes in his high-ranking visitor the person for whose death he has been repenting for so many years. During their conversation Tikhon also recognizes Anatolii and tells him that he has already forgiven him a long time ago. After this, Anatolii decides to die: he lies down in a coffin made for him from a rope box and orders Father Job, with whom he has made peace just before, to tell the clergy that Anatolii has died. In the final sequence, we see Job carrying on his back, in a Christ-like manner, a heavy cross for Anatolii’s grave. Then the boat, with the up-lifted cross and apparently Anatolii’s coffin, dissolves slowly in the pure whiteness of waters and the sky.

Lungin’s quest for a contemporary saint did not begin with The Island. In the early 1990s, he presented in Taxi-Blues a non-conformist jazz musician, played by Mamonov, as another blasphemous and non-believing holy fool. In 2003, in Tycoon (Oligarkh) he depicted oligarch Platon Elenin as a new Christ-like figure (with a mandatory resurrection). Now he presents a true Orthodox holy father, situated in the “peaceful” Soviet past. What is this? One of the many images in Lungin’s gallery of contemporary Russian saints or quasi-saints? A continuing examination of the paradoxes of Russian spirituality? A logical product of Lungin’s burning desire to make films for the “broad masses,” which in the current condition means catering to the neo-conservative mainstream of Russian culture and politics? Or the apologetic move of a director formerly known for his “moderately postmodernist views, servile attitudes to oligarchs, and a convinced liberal” (to quote the Orthodox reviewer)?

In The Island we see a great sinner (a murderer), who becomes a true saint and proves his sainthood by eccentric gestures. Sounds paradoxical? Rather—it is banal. As is well known, in the Russian cultural tradition, all great sinners are eventually rewarded with sainthood (some during their lifetime, like Ivan the Terrible and Stalin; some afterwards, like Lenin and Nikolai II). Certainly, Anatolii’s tricks liven up his character—otherwise, Mamonov would have nothing to do except to mumble prayers and recite incoherent quotes from the Holy Scripture.

Yet, again there is nothing more touching in the Russian cultural menu than the role of a holy fool who delivers the Truth (always with a capital “T”) through eccentric and obscene performances. Mamonov is a fabulous actor; no doubt about that. And eccentricity is his turf. But what is the message of his character’s eccentric acts? Ban abortions? Live in ascetic poverty? Fear God’s Judgment and carry the burden of unforgivable guilt? In the context of the church, all this sounds too trivial to need eccentricities.

In the secular context, however, this dictum brings us back to the Soviet era with its imposed asceticism and guilt-ridden consciousness. Maybe this is the reason that the film’s plot-line, which has no real connections with historical reality and could be played out in the setting of any century, is situated in 1974 in the midst of the Stagnation period, which is now perceived by many as a paradise lost? And, frankly, Russian culture even of that period knows a much more paradoxical representation of the holy fool archetype. I am referring to Venichka Erofeev from Moskva-Petushki (1970). In comparison to this image, Mamonov’s holy fool looks well-behaved and humble, but most importantly, Father Anatolii stunningly lacks self-irony and self-reflexivity. This lack seems to be fundamental for the entire design of the film.

Sergei Shumakov, the producer of the film, clearly states in his interview for the Maiak Radio Station that The Island “does not have a God-seeking intention. It is absent here because everything is already given. This is what makes it different from European so-called spiritual cinema. European films represent attempts to find the spiritual self in the complicated contemporary world, yet the question of faith remains unresolved. In our case there is no such question. The paradox of this film, in my view, resides in this very fact… This film organically accepts the position of a man for whom the question of faith is not a question anymore. He is a believer. Period.”

But if this is true—and I believe it is—then what is this film about? What is its conflict? What is the driving force of its plot and the protagonist’s development? The petty attacks by Father Job on Anatolii can hardly substitute for a conflict. Perhaps, the film is driven by Anatolii’s guilt and repentance? But the final appearance of the miraculously saved Tikhon, conveniently removes even this residue of a conflict. If Anatolii’s guilt would have stayed with him, this would at least raise some questions or create a certain problematization of the unproblematic statement of faith. With the drastic belittlement of Anatolii’s crime, the film transforms into a flat religious tale with a clear message: pray, have faith, and God will forgive even your mortal sins. No wonder that the scene of the exorcism—which is supposed to signify Anatolii’s liberation from his guilt—was qualified even by the Orthodox reviewer as “didactic and unexpressive.”

The Island has frequently been compared with Tarkovskii’s films, and especially with Andrei Rublev (1966). It is obvious that Lungin and Zhegalov were trying hard to trigger this association through the water imagery, monochromatic coloring, and especially through the faces and appearances of the monks. However, there can be nothing more unbecoming for The Island than a parallel with Andrei Rublev: Tarkovskii exposed the tragedy, blood, and pain hidden behind the harmonious images of Rublev’s icons, while Lungin transforms a tragic human story into a Sunday school tale and replaces history with the comforting simulacrum of eternity. Tarkovskii’s film detonated stereotypical images of Holy Russia with contemporary questions, including Adorno’s famous question about poetry after Auschwitz, while Lungin’s removes all questions, leaving shallow and rhetorical answers instead.

Perhaps, this can explain why, despite Mamonov’s emotional intensity, his character remains so closed from any attempts at psychological analysis, why his implied complexity can be reduced to a bunch of rhetorical questions addressed to God. Yet the film contains at least one scene that can suggest a subversive reading of this hero. When Anatolii locks Filaret up in his boiler shed, when, in the clouds of smoke, he jumps and climbs above the burning stoves, he looks exactly like a devil in canonical depictions of hell. Is there anything devilish in Anatolii? Is it his pride (gordynia)? Or his confidence that God speaks through him? Or his judgments of people? Or, perhaps, his righteousness? The scene provokes these thoughts. But the film does not even try to investigate them.

One reviewer mentions that not only Mamonov, but Sukhorukov and Diuzhev as well, are true Orthodox believers (Khoroshilova). This fact may matter for the new officialdom, where piousness, apparently, plays the same role as a party card in Soviet times. However, what is significant to viewers is the aura of previous roles played by an actor or an actress. The fact that Lungin cast Sukhorukov and Diuzhev as monks—given that both are best know for playing gangsters (in Aleksei Balabanov’s wildly popular Brother [Brat, 1997] and Brother-2 [Brat 2, 2000], and in Aleksei Sidorov’s miniseries The Brigade [Brigada, 2002] respectively)—is very touching indeed. Once again, it is no secret that the majority of new Russian churches are built thanks to contributions that come from gangsters: they kill in the morning, repent in the afternoon, send the stolen money to charity in the evening, and then kill again. The fact that Sukhorukov’s and Diuzhev’s characters are, in fact, pure of heart, makes this practice legit. As we already know, all great sinners may become saints.

It so happened that right before I watched The Island, I was reading Mikhail Ryklin’s book Swastika, Cross, Star (Svastika, krest, zvezda), which tells the story of the recent trial of the organizers of the exhibit Careful, Religion! (Ostorozhno, religiia!) in the Sakharov Center in Moscow. This exhibit was sacked by Orthodox fanatics; however, as a result of the trial the organizers and executors of the pogrom were easily acquitted, while the organizers of the exhibit were declared to be the guilty party. Analyzing this incident and its cultural environment, Ryklin notes, among other things:

The most ardent advocates of Soviet society have transformed nowadays into avid supporters of Russian Orthodox fundamentalism. Those, however, who in the Soviet period openly defended the freedom of conscience, now do not hide their skepticism or agnosticism in questions of faith and, as a result, are labeled enemies of the Russian Orthodox faith and of the Russian people. Thus, the repression has changed its vector, but not its structure. More precisely, the vector has changed from the atheistic direction to the religious in order to keep intact the very right to repress. (174-5)

It is little wonder that the Orthodox clergy—the same people who support the pogroms of “blasphemous” exhibits, books, and films—now praise and bless Lungin’s film. The Island artistically orchestrates this—new—repression. If The Island would have been made in 1974, it would not only have had a different meaning (opposing atheistic repression), it would have been a different film. Yet, it is made now and its meaning is inseparable from the current cultural context, in which the rhetoric of Russian Orthodoxy plays a repressive role. Lungin’s new film justifies the repression stemming from Russian Orthodoxy by completely removing this very problem from sight, by making it not only irrelevant but also unmentionable. And it does not really matter if the film’s creators were doing this sincerely or quite cynically. The result remains the same.

Mark Lipovetsky
University of Colorado, Boulder


1] Speaking of eccentricities, the contemporary Russian infatuation with the Orthodox Church knows such marvelous phenomena as the ceremony of canonizing an “exact replica (!!) of a sword belonging to Il'ia Muromets” (reported by RIA Novosti on 2 August 2006). The “sword” was sanctified by the Patriarch Aleksii II; the ceremony was performed by Orthodox priests and was attended by high-ranking government officials and politicians. Mamonov’s character can hardly compete with this!


Works Cited

“Aleksii II osviatil kopiiu mecha Il'i Muromtsa dlia glavy gosudarstva.” RIA Novosti (2 August 2006).
Khoroshilova, Tat'iana. “Ostrov nadezhdy.” Rossiiskaia gazeta (17 November 2006).
“Ostrov reklamirovali v khramakh.” NTV-News (16 November 2006).
Ryklin, Mikhail. Svastika, krest, zvezda. Moscow: Logos, 2006.
Vinnichenko Igor'. “Retsenziia na fil'm Pavla Lungina Ostrov”,
Zaslavskii, Grigorii. “Ostrov—popytka zhit', dumat' i chuvstvovat' v mire, v kotorom est' Bog.” Radio Maiak.

The Island, Russia, 2006
Color, 112 minutes
Director: Pavel Lungin
Scriptwriter: Dmitrii Sobolev
Cinematography: Andrei Zhegalov
Art Directors: Igor' Kotsarev, Aleksandr Tolkachev
Cast: Petr Mamonov, Dmitrii Diuzhev, Viktor Sukhorukov, Nina Usatova, Viktoriia Isakova, Iurii Kuznetsov, Iana Esipovich, Viktoriia Isakova
Producers: Sergei Shumakov, Pavel Lungin, Ol'ga Vasil'eva
Production: Pavel Lungin Studio

Pavel Lungin: The Island (Ostrov, 2006)

reviewed by Mark Lipovetsky© 2007

Updated: 07 Jan 07