Wednesday, July 1, 2015

"Ostrov" (or "The Island"): A Movie Review By Monk Moses the Athonite

"The Island of Anatoli":
A Russian Film Worth Seeing

By Monk Moses the Athonite

August 2008

It's been 35 years since I went to the cinema. When I was young I often went; more often to the theater. One day I visited a friend, an iconographer from Karyes of Mount Athos, and he offered to show me the film on his computer. I pretended to be in a hurry, trying to avoid it. But I submitted to his persistence, and I do not regret it.

It is a film by the Russian director Pavel Lungin, whom I was not familiar with, yet who riveted me for nearly two hours in my uncomfortable seat. I'm not an art critic. I will humbly submit the pleasant surprise of my beautiful impression.

On a small island in the frozen north of Russia is an Orthodox monastery with about twenty monks and its typical daily life. A monk named Anatoli is a figure that distinguishes himself. He lives outside the monastery, in a coal shed, somewhat idiorrythmically. His fellow monks do not seem to particularly like him, although he works laboriously to give them heat with the charcoal. Some visitors do like him and consider his prayers to be helpful. This surprises the other monks, who want to believe that only they know how to interpret the method by which to suffuse the grace of God to the people. It is tragic to serve the God of love for a lifetime and to not truly love.

I think the director has captured well the deep meaning of Orthodoxy, something rarely met, although I am unaware. The self-entitled moral isolation of Anatoli is from holiness, always humble and with great love. The heads of the monastery have much knowledge, many things and people cherish them, but they lack true humility and sacrificial love. Anatoli approaches God naked, without precautions, reservations, terms and transactions. He presents himself exactly as he is. Without masks, false decorum and idiotic goodness. He is unhypocritically genuine, truly penitent, conscious of his own sinfulness. Anatoli is landless, free, virtuous. But he hides his virtue with foolishness for Christ. Ignoring the assessment of people, he cares much for the salvation of his soul and helps others out of true love, without expecting praise, profit, honor. However, he is not miserable, a complainer or unfortunate. He does not invite pity. His attitude has a great modesty and bravery.

In the vast solitude Anatoli feels God's presence alive in his life and firmly hopes in forgiveness for his great transgression. He walks tired and worn without the crutches of support and pseudo-consolation. There is a nobility to his humility and a heroism to his asceticism. He is not fooled by anyone and does not fool. He knows who he is, what he does and why he does it. God illumines him and he becomes fearless and hopeful.

Orthodoxy can inspire art. Unfortunately, this does not happen. Writers, artists and intellectuals have a mistrust and prejudice to the sources of the Orthodox faith. The amazing Dostoevksy in The Brothers Karamazov, the wonderful Papadiamantis with his exquisite short stories, Tarkovsky with his films that have meaning and substance, and the devout verses of Solomos have been forgotten by modern Greeks. The Russian director Pavel Lungin read the lives and sayings of the saints and elders and understood well what Orthodox spirituality means. Hence his Ostrov teaches us that man does not only exist to eat and sleep, to gain and dominate. A true human being is a person who knows to endure, love and hope. Anatoli is such a person.

The large or the small screen constantly shows us the stressed out superheroes, the rulers, the intellectuals, the hypocritical, the rising of the walking dead, the miscreant who spouts profanity, is unbecoming, swears, lies, commits fraud and flatters. Rarely is there holiness in the world and it never presents itself.

Anatoli can no longer be a hero in a Greek movie.

To many he is not a fool for Christ of the ancient saint-bearing Orthodox tradition, but an annoying, unpolished, burdensome, lunatic monk. And yet this hidden tradition exists in Mount Athos and elsewhere.

I thanked my good friend for the opportunity he gave me to see, even in this way, this beautiful film, which filled me with thoughts, some of which I wanted to convey here. I don't know what I accomplished, nonetheless if you get a chance to see the film itself, I believe you will not regret it. It has something to say. Let us not dwell on those that say nothing, nothing at all.

: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.