The Moving Icon: Ostrov

Apr 18, 2014 Comment(s) Tags:

When one thinks of Orthodox pop-culture, the great Russian writers Dostoevsky and The Way of a Pilgrim from the 1800s come to mind. During the 20th century, the films of Tarkovsky were seen as the greatest examples of expressing Orthodoxy through moving images. However, at the dawn of the 21st century we have been blessed with what I regard as the benchmark for Orthodox filmmaking, the Russian film Ostrov: The Island.

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When one thinks of Orthodox pop-culture, the great Russian writers Dostoevsky and The Way of a Pilgrim from the 1800s come to mind. During the 20th century, the films of Tarkovsky were seen as the greatest examples of expressing Orthodoxy through moving images. However, at the dawn of the 21st century we have been blessed with what I regard as the benchmark for Orthodox filmmaking, the Russian film Ostrov: The Island.

Released in 2006 and even included in that year’s prestigious Venice Film Festival, Ostrov tells the beautiful story of a fool-for-Christ and his journey towards spiritual perfection. Though this film was not based on any one particular fool-for-Christ, but was inspired by the lives of such saints from the Orthodox tradition. To briefly define, a fool-for-Christ is what the name suggests – someone who acts, talks and dresses as if insane so as to mask their holiness which is the result of living close to God. When examined and understood, these saints contain all the virtues of an ideal Christian.

Ostrov is a film that seen just once will make a big impression on you. It can’t be categorised as a drama, but moreso a ‘spiritual comedy’ for what unfolds provides both humour and poignant messages on the Orthodox spiritual life.

In this podcast, I wish to discuss some elements of the film without spoiling it for those who haven’t yet seen this masterpiece. And for those who have, I hope you’ll want to watch it again with new insight and perspective.

Set in 1976, at a monastery somewhere in the desolate, frozen wilderness of Northern Russia, Ostrov tells the story of Fr Anatoly, a monk living with the guilt of cowardly shooting his naval captain over 30 years ago after being captured by a Nazi patrol. He dedicates himself fully to God, repenting for his past actions, and in the process becomes a saint, but masks his holiness under the guise of a ‘fool-for-Christ’. He lives in the boiler-room, sleeping on piles of coal, his face covered in soot. All day he does the back-breaking job of collecting coal and feeding the furnaces. Yet when he can, he takes a small boat and seeks isolation on a small island where he unceasingly prays the Jesus prayer and laments over the shooting of his captain.

Fr Anatoly exhibits bizarre behaviour, frequently playing childish pranks on his fellow monks. His antics are much to the annoyance of hieromonk Fr Job, who struggles to understand Fr Anatoly’s motives towards him and sees his acting up as a hindrance to life at the monastery. Despite having received from God the gift of clairvoyance, no one suspects he’s a saint. Even when pilgrims come to find this famous ‘holy-man,’ Fr Anatoly hides his identity through various strategies.

The film is a collection of stories, parables even, weaved together to reveal the wisdom of this simple fool-for-Christ. Fr Anatoly, through his ‘craziness’, enables both the monks and pilgrims to see for themselves their own foolishness and hard-heartedness.

The character Fr Job is a monk who religiously follows the letter-of-the-law, yet fails to comprehend what it means to be a Christian. In one scene, when asked by Fr Anatoly why Cain killed Abel, despite being an educated and well-read man, he’s unable to answer him. Fr Job is a very serious monk with an axe to grind toward Fr Anatoly. Fr Job eagerly wants to win the approval of the Abbot, Fr Filaret, frequently reporting to him of Fr Anatoly’s recent antics. Though we can see he’s jealous of Fr Anatoly, at the same time we sympathise with him because Fr Job tries extremely hard to please everyone, taking on all of the monastery’s problems, even how laundry is hung on a line. He thinks this is what’s expected of him, but all Fr Anatoly wants him to do is simply ‘to love’.

Another key element of the film concerns the hypocritical nature of spiritually-blind people who ask for God’s help. In one scene, a mother comes with her young son who has become crippled due to a bad hip. Fr Anatoly fervently prays for the boy, as evident by his exhaustion afterwards. The boy immediately shows improvement, but Fr Anatoly instructs that he must stay overnight and receive Communion in order to be completely healed. However, the mother, despite her earlier weeping and cries for help, is more concerned about losing her job if she does not return. Ostrov uses this story, and several others, to show how we, despite witnessing miracles or needing to do something in order to be completely healed, can be so consumed by worldly things.

Another poignant example concerns the monastery’s abbot, who Fr Job holds in such high regard he even thinks he might be a ‘saint’. However, we soon see how much faith he has when he goes to live with Fr Anatoly in the boiler-room after his cell burns down. The abbot talks about how together they can achieve salvation imitating the great saints by sleeping on rocks – making reference to St Seraphim of Sarov. Yet as he prepares for sleep, Fr Anatoly watches as the abbot removes his fur-lined boots and rolls out a luxurious blanket over the pile of coal. I won’t reveal what happens, but it’s one of the most hilarious and truly moving scenes about what it really means to be a serious Christian.

The film is full of symbolic imagery expressed through its cinematography. Snow and coal feature most prominently. Snow is symbolic of purity, whereas coal represents sin and repentance. This combination brings to mind Psalm 51, verse 7: ‘cleanse me with hyssop, and I shall be made clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow’. This is beautifully captured in one scene where Fr Filaret cleans a soot-covered icon to reveal Jesus Christ. The soot is like sin, which builds up covering our hearts. But through living a Christian life of sincere repentance, we can slowly remove this soot to reveal underneath that we’re all living icons of God, both in His image and likeliness. By achieving a pure heart and soul, we can then become ‘whiter than snow’, worthy to be received by God.

The fact this monastery is located in a desolate and miserably cold environment is also very symbolic. This icy location is the exact opposite of the dry, arid wilderness of the great Desert Fathers. Both landscapes are barren, enabling monks and saints to battle demons and temptation. The isolated nature of this place is symbolic of everyone’s battle with themselves, dealing with past wrongs and working towards reconciliation with God. The ramshackle state of the monastery represents the state of the world and each person – broken and falling apart. The rotting boats and close-up of nails, I believe, represent the reality that everything in this world, including ourselves, will rot away, but the nails, perhaps representing the soul, will remain. But through a life in God we can achieve renewal and be like the beautiful icons and lit candles which are the very few items in the film shown in full colour and brightness. The only other objects shown in colour are items from the outside world, where their true state of ‘goodness’ is questionable, whereas in the icy wilderness things are either black or white – death or life.

Some other great examples of visual poetry include the majestic swaying of seaweed and the snow covered grounds of Fr Anatoly’s island. The very idea of the island represents each of us, a place where through prayer and contemplation salvation is found. We also get to see the practice of the Jesus Prayer as Fr Anatoly repeats it continuously. It’s the first thing he utters when he awakes and it never leaves him.

If Ostrov teaches us just one thing, it is that though the Faith may seem complex, it’s in fact extremely simple. It’s our fault when we focus too much on constructing rules and forget about its very essence, which is living in the spirit of the Faith. In one scene, the abbot asks Fr Anatoly a series of questions in which he replies with psalms and common prayers. As a viewer, we realise Fr Anatoly is actually answering the abbot’s questions and giving him invaluable spiritual advice, yet the abbot says he speaks in ‘riddles’. This shows how little he understands the Faith. The simplicity of the film is deliberate to reveal how foolish and blind we really are.

Ostrov demonstrates the danger of being religious rather than spiritual. In order to be a Christian, it’s not about knowing the Gospels off by heart, critiquing everyone or appearing holy, but being spiritual in the sense of living as a Christian – not judging others, and most importantly, to love one another as Christ loved us.

It’s also worth noting the fascinating relationship Russian culture and history have with the concept of ‘the fool’. At the beginning of Ostrov, we see the young layperson Fr Anatoly cowardly saving himself, but we also see what could also be described as manic or frenzied behaviour when compared to the calmer state of his captain. Aside from the ‘fool-for-Christ’ which is a spiritual state of mind, there was also ‘the fool’ or ‘idiot’, a person who, for worldly reasons, acted insane so as to be ignored and left alone, especially by authority. During the Soviet era, this was an attempt by some people to have a degree of liberty from Communist tyranny. Fr Anatoly is a manifestation of both ‘fools’ – as his younger self, his foolishness saved him from the Nazis. Then we have the older, yet wiser ‘fool-for-Christ’ Fr Anatoly who now liberates the monks, especially Fr Job, of their legalistic, Pharisaic state of mind. Both states of ‘foolishness’ are about achieving freedom: worldly and spiritual.

Ostrov is the fifth film of Russian director Pavel Lungin, who is also of Jewish heritage. Lungin has had a long career working in and outside of Russia, both as a filmmaker and screenwriter. Looking at his list of credits, his films seem to orbit around the issues of choice, failings and repentance.

His most famous and successful film, besides Ostrov, was Taxi Blues, for which he was awarded the Best Director Prize at the 1990 Cannes Film Festival, which also starred the actor who would later play Fr Anatoly.

In developing this character, Lungin didn’t want Fr Anatoly to regard himself as being clever or spiritual, but blessed. To quote Lungin, Fr Anatoly is “an exposed nerve, which connects to the pains of this world. His absolute power is a reaction to the pain of those people who come to it.”

We see this throughout the film where Fr Anatoly, based on his own life experiences and gifts from God, discretely uses them to help the individual but allows them to realise it in their own time.

The actor who played Fr Anatoly was Pyotr Mamonov, who in his heyday was one of the few rock stars in the USSR. Mamonov converted to Orthodoxy in the 1990s. He left the music industry and now lives in an isolated village somewhere in rural Russia.

Lungin and Mamonov have worked together on several films, both before and after Ostrov. Mamonov received a blessing from his confessor to play his character, something all artists should do. Lungin felt Mamonov’s performance was as strong as it was because, in his opinion, Mamonov played himself for most of the role. His acting was praised by the then Patriarch of Moscow, Alexei II, and won him a Best Actor Nika Award. The next Lungin film he appeared in was Tsar in 2009, where Mamonov played the title hero, Tsar Ivan the Terrible, a character torn between passionate faith and cruelty.

Lungin’s most recent film was the 2012 The Conductor. The film was about a group of musicians from Moscow who travel to Jerusalem to perform a contemporary religious recital. However, on the eve of their departure, Petrov, the passionate yet extremely demanding conductor, learns that his estranged son, then living in Jerusalem, has just committed suicide. Upon arriving in the Holy City, the story then intersects with other storylines including a couple experiencing martial problems and a young Palestinian suicide bomber. The central issues raised by the actions of the characters concern sin, responsibility, guilt and repentance. Although this film did not receive the same acclaim as Ostrov, Lungin’s semi-religious film still explored the important topics that confront all human beings in their relationships with each other and God.

Now, returning back to Ostrov. Despite being such a remarkable film and a blockbuster in its native Russia, yet the film has not been that widely seen elsewhere, including the USA and Australia. They are several reasons, including limited release and distribution, language/subtitle hindrance and different DVD regional coding.

However, copies of this film can be purchased online. American listeners are quite fortunate as most copies available for purchase are in the NTSC encoding whilst for countries such as Australia we have the barrier of the PAL system. However, many DVD players and even TVs now come with the ability to play NTSC and PAL and even multi-region DVDs, but you must check before making a purchase.

Hopefully, the studio who owns the copyright to this film will consider opening up to more worldwide distributors to include Pacific regions like Australia and Asia. Or even better, sell digital copies online, which is how we’ll all be consuming our media in the very near future anyway.

In conclusion, what value does Ostrov offer the faithful and even Orthodox filmmakers? I think this question is best answered by the comments of the late Patriarch of Moscow, Alexei II. He praised Ostrov for its profound depiction of faith and monastic life, calling it, quote “a vivid example of an effort to take a Christian approach to culture.” Such a film shows how to incorporate the Orthodox phronema into media, influencing the wider society and enhancing its cultural and artistic expression. I also like the words of writer, Igor Vinnichenko, who praised the film 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.

But it’s not just at the ‘local level’ within an Orthodox country, but globally. I got to see this film at a fellowship group all the way down here in Melbourne, Australia. When taking this into account, it makes one realise the significance of this film. Ostrov is the first Orthodox film to achieve global recognition, even if patchy in some places.

Though one can argue Tarkovsky’s films, such as Andrei Rublev and The Sacrifice, may have brought Orthodox visual storytelling to the world, however, their global reach was minimal as evident by audiences’ lack of knowledge of them.

To break it down, Ostrov is a masterpiece because it effectively told a powerful story with poignant visual images on living the Christian life and achieving salvation. It is because of this the film has found its way around the world largely due to word-of-mouth. I hope if you’ve never seen it before you will go find it online or ask a friend for their copy. If you have seen it, please watch it again.

If you want to learn more about Orthodoxy, media and the arts, visit the OFA blog or LIKE the blog on Facebook. Thanks for listening.


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