I have long had a fascination with Russia, a country that has had more than its fair share of suffering. It is also a country that has produced fine novelists, composers and artists over the years, as if off a huge production line. But such artistry and talent could often lead to the Gulags during the communist era, where being part of the intelligentsia was looked upon with suspicion. But the arrival of perestroika has allowed men like Pavel Lounquine the freedom to make fine films like "The Island", which would have been inconceivable before this time when religion suffered repression. But now society is more open and people have been able to turn back to the church. Time can be a great healer, and past sins can be erased and even forgiven in the new Russia.
The film commences in the northern seas of Russia during World War Two, when two men are captured transporting coal by the Germans. One of the men desperate to survive shoots the other in order to survive. Following an explosion he is rescued by monks from a nearby monastery situated on a desolate island nearby. There he becomes a monk who is haunted by the memory of his act, and continually prays for the soul of the dead man and forgiveness for himself. He works in the boiler room of the monastery constantly hauling coal. His eccentric and erratic behaviour causes consternation amongst his brothers, but they recognise his gifts of healing and clairvoyancy. Thirty years after the war he is an ill man, but life has a final twist before he is due to meet his maker.
The lead actor Pyotr Mamonov was a rock musician in the USSR before converting to the Russian orthodox church in the 1990's. He now lives on an island much like the character he plays in the film. No wonder he is able to give such a virtuoso performance, as he simply plays himself. The character is based on a "Holy Fool", like St Francis of Assisi. Someone with a crazy sort of wisdom. The film is shot in beautiful monochrome colours, which together with the desolate scenery gives the film a magnificent look of austerity. There are shots of stunted shrubs and lichen covered rocks. The landscape is covered in ice and snow that appears of Arctic intensity. I was reminded of medieval monks who sought closeness to God in solitude, when they inhabited remote islands like the Skelligs off the coast of Ireland. Such harshness and appearance of austere poverty make the movie very Russian in character.
The film swept the Russian oscars winning 5 Nika awards including best film, and I can easily see why. It is genuinely touching at times, especially in the relationships between the monks who have a genuine love of their eccentric brother. My favourite scene is where the eccentric brother burns the boots and blanket of a fellow brother, who covets these possessions, which brings an unsuspected warmth between the two. The director himself said that he wished to show that there is a God, and that we are not alone in the world. Through the central character he has achieved this aim. The film posseses a haunting beauty the like of which I cannot recall, and tells a story of faith and redemption that tugs at the heart. It is in short a fine achievement!