SEA CHANGE: Skepticism is out, “God exists” is in in The Island.
The Russian-Jewish filmmaker Pavel Lungin made his reputation as a post-Soviet Scorsese, with hard-times urban tales (Taxi Blues, Luna Park, etc.) set in grubby, materialist Moscow, and often featuring skeptical, secular Jewish characters. What a sea change with The Island (2006), which is getting six screenings (October 26, 28, 31; November 1-3) at the MFA, a very weird and magnificently realized spiritual parable set mostly in a Russian Orthodox monastery on the isolated White Sea. “This is a film about the fact that God exists,” Lungin has said of The Island.
The narrative starts in 1942. A Nazi ship intercepts a Russian barge, whereupon sniveling coal stoker Anatoly (Pyotr Mamonov) squirms on his knees and begs for his life. No problem: all Anatoly has to do is shoot his Captain, a square-jawed stoic who calmly lights and drags on a cigarette. It’s a bit like Sophie’s choice, when novelist William Styron’s heroine was forced by the Nazis to decide which of her children would be gassed and which would live. Sophie’s “choice” led to a lifetime of guilt and, finally, suicide. Anatoly’s gun goes off and the Captain falls backward into the icy water. How will Anatoly live with his crime?
Flash ahead 34 years, to 1976. Anatoly is balding, unbathed, practically toothless, and still stoking coal. But in the interim, he has become a monk. Father Anatoly. His is the most ascetic, impoverished life in a crumbling shack at the edge of the cold sea. Each day he prays fervently, acknowledging his terrible betrayal and murder (“My sin is ever before you, O Lord”), and speaking up to God for the Captain’s wandering soul (“Grant him the kingdom of Heaven!”). Lungin is right: The Island is a deeply religious movie. The moments of prayer are beautifully, delicately lit, as the reverent Anatoly kneels before the most awe-inspiring Eastern Orthodox icons of Christ. Hushed, lovely long shots of the robed, bearded Anatoly rowing across the water are positively Biblical, like Jesus and his disciples at the Sea of Galilee.
But then there’s the Baroque stuff, the almost ghoulish comedy, which may — or may not — undercut The Island’s piety. Anatoly is not just a suffering Christian penitent — he’s a mad prankster, terrifying the other monks with his anarchist tricks, like setting fire to their boots. And he’s a nut job. Crazy, crazy! When peasants arrive from the mainland, he gives them the screwiest advice, like telling an old widow that her husband is still alive in France and that she should travel there and find him. Lungin keeps Anatoly a mystery. Is there a strange religious logic to his loony actions? Is he a wise fool, doing God’s bidding, or a foolish fool, undoing the Christian work of the Orthodox brethren?
Lungin couldn’t have cast Anatoly better than with Pyotr Mamonov, who takes his mangy part to heart and soul. In real life, Mamonov was an acclaimed Russian alt-rocker (Brian Eno produced an album) who gave up rocking and moved to the country after he got religion.
Two Prague film students, Filip Remonda and Vit Kusac, concocted a hyperspace superstore, advertised its gala opening, and then shot footage of the several thousand Czech citizens who made their way into the country one Saturday morning expecting a real store with bargains. Czech Dreams, at the ICA October 26 and 27, is a padded-out documentary chronicling this callow, mean-spirited project. The fact that people showed up proves nothing at all. The filmmakers should have been flunked by their professors.