The Island (Остров)

****

Strange things happen in out-of-the-way places.  The Ritzy in Brixton, for instance.  At the beginning of  L’armeé du crime a few months ago the thing started with a tremendous noise over the opening shots of captured résistants being taken away for execution.  Then someone complained and the film started again with mournful music and a voice reading out their names and ‘mort(e) pour la France’.  The terrific din was more effective somehow.

This time the trailers came to an end and we (there were two of us) were left with a blank screen.  Then someone from the staff appeared in the darkness behind me and called someone else on her mobile and the film began.  And in horizontal greyness the beginning of the film was rather like the blank screen.  Maybe they ought to charge extra for these multimedia experiences–get some cheepy birds in to aleatorically play an electric guitar.

Anyway, the film.  It’s the war and the nasty Germans seize a coal barge and say the stoker can live if he shoots Vasily Petrovich, the captain, for them (which he does).  Then they blow up the barge but he is washed up on the shore of a monastery island , together (as it appears) with lots of coal.

That was 1942.  Now it’s 1976 and Father Anatoly is the stoker in the monastery’s boiler room (situated on a separate island) and  well known to the local laity, who come to him for advice and miracles.  Often he claims the real Father Anatoly is asleep, but does himself appear massively pregnant to a young woman seeking a blessing for her abortion, and acts a dialogue for another petitioner to overhear.  In this case, the maiden is not dead, but sleepeth-or rather, the husband killed in the war is in fact living in France and his wife has to sell the pig and go to see him one last time.

Father Anatoly disrupts the good order and discipline of the monastery with irregular behaviour of various kinds–jokes, not washing, living in a coal-bunker.  This irritates Father Job, who likes things done properly, and Filaret, the head of the monastery, who is more sympathetic but also uncomprehending.  At various times Father Anatoly tells himself, his petitioners, God and the empty spaces that his sins weigh heavily on him.

And all of this is good straightforward stuff in a sense–the kind of point that Dostovsky (and indeed Tolstoy and many others) loved to make about real holiness and closeness-to-God looking ridiculous and unpleasant from the worldly point of view.

Then things take a worrying turn.  Filaret comes to spend the night in Anatoly’s cell (the boiler-room) after his own accommodation has burnt down (predicted by Anatoly facing the wrong way at divine service).  Anatoly throws his boots into the furnace and his blanket into the lake, as well as largely asphyxiating him under the pretext of exorcising demons.  This leads Filaret to realise that his own faith is merely superficial.

Then we suddenly escape the lake island and find ourselves on a train, where the admiral is travelling with his daughter, who is behaving very oddly (an extraordinary performance from Viktoriya Isakova, determined to get a whole film into her seven minutes on screen).  They arrive at the monastery, she says that her dad the Admiral is called Vasily Petrovich and Father Anatoly says she is not ill, but possessed by a devil, so he rows her off to his island where she grandly exhibits symptoms of demonic possession (a bit chilly for it, really) while Anatoly prays.  Then she recovers and weeps.

Anatoly tells the Admiral he must confess.  He asks What does that mean? and Father A explains that he once killed somebody and he feels he can’t die without telling someone.  But of course they’re the same Vasily Petrovich and he was only wounded in the arm.  So now Father A can die peacefully after upbraiding Father Job over the nice polished coffin the latter has had made for him.

So.  Are we supposed to swallow that happy ending as a tribute to Hollywood rather than the Bible?  Or is it supposed to show once again how peculiar the truly holy may appear to our sinful eyes?  In any case, there was a great deal to enjoy in the impressive horizontality and bleakness of the Russian landscape, and the Father Anatoly of Pyotr Mamonov.

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