Subscribe to Our Feeds Follow on Mastodon! Follow @gorettipub on Twitter! Follow Goretti Publications on Facebook
Support us on Ko-Fi! Support us on Patreon!

Goretti Publications

Icon for sharing via Twitter Icon for sharing via Facebook Icon for sharing via LinkedIn Icon for sharing via Reddit Icon for sharing via email

The Island: In Russia With Love

Donald P. Goodman III

Version 1.0,

The Island (“Остров”), starring Petr Mamonov and directed by Pavel Lungin, is a spiritual drama that could only have come from Russia. Following the story of Russian Orthodox monk Anatoly at a small monastery in northern Russia, it sings themes of guilt, penance, and forgiveness, as well as the all-encompassing and mysterious power of God.

Synopsis of the Plot

The Island is a very dense movie, so only a synopsis, rather than a full exploration, is possible. The film starts in 1942, when young Anatoly and his sole officer, Tikhon, are manning a boat loaded with coal. Already Anatoly, the coalman on the boat, is coughing from his constant exposure to coal dust. We see this coughing throughout the film, but at this point it's unremarkable; he is young, after all, and has just been feeding the fires.

When the Germans attack the boat, Anatoly and Tikhon hide in the high-piled coal in the hopes of escape; however, the Germans figure out their hiding place and fire at the coal heap, leading Anatoly to leap out and begin begging for mercy in what can only be described as a fit of shameful cowardice. When the Germans instruct him to turn over his captain, he immediately shows them where Tikhon is hiding; Tikhon maintains a demeanor of stoic resignation, while Anatoly continues to beg for his life and blubber in abject fear. The German officer offers Anatoly a choice: shoot Tikhon and live, or be shot himself. Anatoly takes the gun, and though he struggles for a moment, he does pull the trigger; Tikhon, struck by the bullet, falls into the sea, apparently dead. The Germans then wire the boat to explode and leave; as they leave, Anatoly shouts at them, “You've murdered Tikhon, you bastards!” Then the boat blows, and the next time we see Anatoly he is waking up on the beach, being dragged to safety by robed monks, and the movie skips some thirty years to its present, 1976.

Anatoly, now a mature man in his fifties, is a monk himself, stoking the fires that heat the monastery at which he has lived these many years. At first, though, we don't see him at the monastery; we see him at a small nearby island, a near-barren tundra covered in lichen, walking alone and praising the glory of God, begging forgiveness for his sinful self. He rows back and forth to this island frequently in the film; it is both his sanctuary, where he can be alone and beseech the Lord forgiveness for his sins, and his prison, where he is alone with his guilt and sorrow.

When he returns, we see a group of poor people at the door of the boiler room where he sleeps, asking where Father Anatoly is. Anatoly, pretending to be someone else, says that he is still in bed; however, one young woman follows him as he goes about his tasks. This scene is both riveting and critical, so a full exploration, almost a transcript, of it is warranted even in this short synopsis.

The girl holds some money up to Anatoly, offering to pay him to get Father Anatoly for her, but he sharply rebuffs her, and says he never wants to see that (the money) again. He then goes into the building, claiming that he is going to get Anatoly; however, he shortly returns, and the first of the outwardly ridiculous behaviors that Anatoly has adopted appears.

Anatoly comes out completely unchanged except for a fake belly under his robe, which he appears to regard, rather absurdly, as a “disguise”. Throughout the film he is pretending that he is not Anatoly, but this is the most nonsensical of his attempts. The girl, of course, is not fooled, and she continues to beseech him to fetch Anatoly for her; however, they do have a conversation.

Anatoly, see, already knows why the girl wishes to see him, and he already knows that he can't give her what she wants. So he opens about as strongly as he can: “Came for a blessing to murder, huh? Don't even think of that!”

The girl begs him, “Please, father, dear, let Elder Anatoly bless my abortion!”

“Planning to go to hell? And wanting me to accompany you?” Anatoly replies. The girl weeps.

“I know… But if I give birth, nobody will marry me.”

“Nobody is going to marry you anyway,” Anatoly tells her. He is leaning toward her, looking deeply into her eyes. “I can see, that's what your fate says. But if you bear this child, it will give you comfort. Otherwise you'll be cursing yourself for the rest of your life. For murdering an innocent child.”

We can see from her eyes that the girl knows this is true; but she asks him, “How do you know? You're not even Elder Anatoly.”

Anatoly tells her, “Maybe it's because I'm a murderer myself.” Then, in a moment, he smiles at her. “You're going to bear the cutest boy!”

She smiles at him; and then, with a sudden ferocity that shocks both her and the viewer, he chases her off his island.

That Anatoly really does know the things he says is never questioned; the why certainly is, and indeed is the focus of the entire film. But the what, the fact of the knowledge, the fact that Anatoly can ask God to work wonders and that God does them, is clear and accepted. This conversation gives us Anatoly's two guiding principles, and the central mysteries of the film: the mystery of forgiveness, and the mystery of God's grace.

We learn shortly thereafter that Anatoly is a matter of some discord for some of his brother monks, especially Father Job. Father Job is a sincere man, truly seeking to follow Christ; he is also very clearly a learned man, as Anatoly will be the first to acknowledge. But he is a proud man, and Anatoly's utter and complete lack of pride frustrates him. Anatoly, for his part, is less than perfect to Job; at one point, seeing Job coming to his boiler room, he rubs soot on the handle so that Job's hand will be grimed, knowing that cleanliness is one of Job's dearest values. The two do not get along, and though Anatoly is appropriately humble to Job when disciplined, he certainly provokes Job's ire, as well.

Father Filaretus, the superior of the monastery, clearly finds Anatoly amusing, even admirable in his mortification and his holiness; he invites Anatoly to come live in his cell, and when his own cell suffers a fire, he goes to live in the boiler room with Anatoly, happily declaring that they will speak about heaven and eternity together. But he is also troubled by Anatoly, especially by his relations with Job. And, though as always Anatoly is appropriately humble toward Filaretus, when he observes some sin in Filaretus he does not hestitate to fight it, including one particularly frightening, and frankly disturbing, scene.

Filaretus came to live in the boiler room with Anatoly, again eager for the extra austerity and the chance to speak with Anatoly even more about the things of the next world. But he brings with him a pair of boots given to him by the archbishop and a blanket he had purchased while in Greece. These are very fine articles, and Filaretus is very attached to them. Anatoly sees this immediately; whether he sees it of his own accord, or God told him, is not clear. Anatoly then locks the door of the boiler room and begins filling it with smoke, declaring that there are demons all around, and that smoke will drive them away. He also begins cutting up Filaretus's boots and casting them into the coal fires. Filaretus, getting very frightened, tries to escape, but cannot until Anatoly breaks the lock with a hammer, and the two come out into the fresh air. Anatoly declares, “I forgot the main demon!” and returns to the boiler room, grabbing Filaretus's fine blanket and throwing it into the sea. The two then sit down together, Anatoly even smiling, and clearing their lungs; and Filaretus very frankly speaks to Anatoly about what had occurred.

“I'm actually very thankful to you,” he tells Anatoly. “I truly was attached to those boots and blanket. But you relieved me of them. Thank you!” This monastery is a true community of brothers, with difficulties between each other but ultimately all focused on one thing: removing their earthly attachments and pursuing eternal life. Filaretus can see that Anatoly has a special gift from God for that.

From the time we move to the modern day, however, Anatoly knows that he is dying; at one point he sets a toy boat sailing, and when asked by another monk what he is doing, he says that it's a prayer that he be allowed to live through the winter, so that his brothers won't have to work too hard digging his grave in the icy soil. The coughing we note at the beginning of the film takes on more meaning for us now; and pointedly, the toy boat capsizes. Perhaps Anatoly will not live through the winter after all.

There are other incidents: an old widow comes to him for prayers for her husband, whom she believes to have been killed in combat in 1944; a boy who fell off a roof and permanently injured his legs is brought by his mother for healing. Each of these incidents is fodder for an essay all by itself; sadly, though, we do not have the time for such things. Nevertheless, though there are pointed and profound occurrences in the middle, all too soon we begin to come to the end.

We meet an old man, an admiral, on his way to the monastery with his daughter, a woman in her early twenties suffering from very serious mental illness. This admiral has heard about the wonder-working monk Anatoly and hopes that he can help his daughter. Soon, though, we realize who this admiral is: none other than Tikhon, the captain that Anatoly believed he had killed all those years ago. Tikhon does not realize, indeed never imagines, that this monk Anatoly is the same coward that he had known in the early years of the war, and doesn't recognize him when he sees him, age has so changed them both. But Anatoly realizes; though God had hidden this from him for so long, he now sees even this, his own personal demons, clearly, and he knows what he must do.

Your daughter is not insane, he tells Tikhon; she has a demon. Fortunately, though, it is a demon I know well. He takes her to his island; he prays for her; and then he casts the demon out and brings her back to her father. He tells them to stay until the morning, so that she can confess and receive the Eucharist, and all will be well. Then he invites Tikhon into his boiler room, his “place of penance” (in Filaretus's words), and reveals, indirectly, who he is. Tikhon remembers; he says that he was only hit in the arm, and the blast sent him well away, and he was able to survive. Indeed, he served with distinction, rose to the rank of admiral. And he tells Anatoly that he had long ago forgiven him. Anatoly can be at peace.

And so Anatoly dies.

Themes and Symbols

We must begin at the conversation with the pregnant girl, the first time we meet Anatoly as a Christian monk. Two of those lines—“Maybe it's because I'm a murderer myself” and “How do you know?”—provide us all we should be looking for. Anatoly is a murderer—at least, he very reasonably thinks he is, and is such in intention if not in deed. He is a sinner, the doer of a deed so grave that there is no making it right. He hates his sin; but that sin also gives him insight, the knowledge of what this girl will go through if she kills her child. He knows that the girl will curse herself for her crime; he himself has murdered, and he curses himself every day. He will never make such a mistake again, and he will help others avoid it if he can.

Which leads us to the other statement—“How do you know?” Anatoly himself doesn't know; or rather, he doesn't know why he knows. He certainly knows how: God tells him, of course. But why? That Anatoly does not understand, and he truly wishes that this knowledge, this power had not been given to him. After he casts out Filaretus's demons, he tells Filaretus that there is one thing he doesn't understand.

“One thing is unclear to me. Why did I deserve all this? Why did God choose to teach through me? With my sins, I deserve to be struck by lightning. Instead people take me for someone almost holy. But I am so far from being holy! I have no peace in my heart.”

It is impossible to review every meaningful occurrence in the film; it is incredibly dense, and not a single shot is wasted. But if we keep the above in mind—that he knows his sins, that he does not understand God's will for him, but that he does it always despite not understanding—we will see mountains of meaning in the tiny details of this film.

Water is a contant theme; the film lovingly dwells on shots of the water lapping at the shores and the docks. Anatoly must row through the water to reach his island of penance; he carries the boy with the broken legs through the water to save him; he moves Tikhon's daughter through the water to his island to cast out her demons. The baptism symbolism is impossible to ignore.

Fire is also a symbol. The film takes place in northern Russia, famously a frigid place. Yet Anatoly is sweaty, oily, hot throughout the film. We are repeatedly treated to shots of the coal fires, roaring in the furnaces; Anatoly's whole job at the monastery is feeding the fires with coal to keep them all warm. While the film speaks frequently of the fires of hell, I don't think the fire refers to that, at least not mostly; it appears to me to be a purifying fire, the means by which Anatoly is burning away his sins and winnowing out his virtues.

Dirt and soot are everywhere; indeed, one of Father Job's chief complaints about Anatoly is that he is always dirty. And it's true; Anatoly shovels coal for a living, and is frequently covered in soot and coal dust. But that soot is what Anatoly sees himself to be, a dirty sinner unworthy of God's redemption; yet he frequently prays the psalms asking for God to wash him clean. At one point, Father Filaretus is cleaning an icon of Christ, wiping the soot away to reveal His Holy Face; both he and Father Job agree that it is beautiful. It is hard not to extend this to Anatoly: externally filthy, but concealing the nature of Christ living within him.

Every second of the film is beautifully shot and deeply meaningful; I encourage anyone to watch it carefully, to see what else they might see.


In addition to the symbols, though, the film's central narrative strikes an important chord. Anatoly's life was spent in penance and love, hoping against hope to make right what he had done wrong, relying on the goodness of God for mercy despite his horrible sin. And God not only grants him mercy; God not only forgives him and assures him of the forgiveness of the one he most wronged; God makes him a teacher, a holy man, a wonder-worker. God's mercy and kindness overflow through him.

Yet that mercy does not mean happy feelings and good times; at least, not always. We often see Anatoly rejoicing in small things: a little plant on the dock, singing the glories of God, the sounds of the bells he is privileged to ring to call his brothers to prayer. But we often see him troubled, miserable, weeping in his guilt and grief at what he's done. The most poignant example is the conversation with Father Filaretus, after destroying the boots and blanket. Anatoly tells Filaretus very clearly what is troubling him, the long, dark night of the soul he has been enduring since that fateful day during the war so many years ago.

For even though Anatoly can see clearly the will of God, he does not understand it. In fact, he hates it; he does not want the attention, does not want people thinking well of him. He is a horrible sinner, wants to be known as such, and cannot understand why God has given him this burden. But though he does not understand the will of God, he does it; that is his penance. He does not need to understand; he needs only follow. And he does that, generously and perfectly, to the end of his days.

The Island is a film that anyone would do well to spend some time watching. The admiration for penance and for the infinite generosity of God cannot fail to bolster the faithful.