Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | March 26, 2008

The Island (Ostrov)

Last night I watched the netflix DVD for the first time. I realize this makes me the last orthodox man on earth with this… and I watched it more out of curiosity about “The Buzz” than anything else. And I gotta say that I kept waiting for something that would be “hard” or “grim”. Odd I saw. Northern European I saw. Russian… well… you get the picture. Hard… well.. not especially…. but then I’ve seen a lot of movies in my time… a lot of films… and used “background” movies to speed some of my work grading routines. Some you get a lot of work done… others, you find needing a second DVD to get it done. So maybe there just aren’t a lot of things out there that surprise.

As the Duke would say, “‘Got a couple of DVD’s in the machine. A man could watch them. Maybe even drink some pop.”

“The Island” seemed Ingmar Bergman-ish (“The Seventh Seal”) but without the B&W melodramatics of the chess game. I mean, here the characters play out there lives under God rather than against Satan…. or at least I think so. But maybe it’s better to say simply there was no Chess board, no dove, and no badmitton (the now-dated spoof of the Seventh Seal: “Der Dove”).

Out-of-the-box reaction is that it seems to put a different color on the quirkiness of all those who love us! or at least those of us who are quirky enough to convert to Orthodoxy. The range of emotion from tough love to tenderness, from anger to joking was a surprise for any movie. But then again, character studies tend to be rare subjects on the screen. Mood studies are more common, stories are more common… but character… that’s something we don’t see much of. Think about it: no stunningly beautiful scenery, no car chases, no shoot outs, no hunks, no babes…. and just everyday living.

I think if I hadn’t read accounts of the quirkiness of many of the Fools for Christ… I would have been more puzzled. And yet even with that, you can see how the fellow would be hard to live with on a day-to-day basis. And while surely Fr. Job’s temprament is easy to pillory from the outside… in truth, we are more often like him than we admit. Our own sins are simply less obvious to ourselves than those he represented.

I think one of the parts I liked best was the recitation of the Psalm One…. which seeing it in the context of the film and its story, hearing it as he walks through the site…. brought out its meaning almost more clearly than our esteemed Fr. Pat Reardon’s own comments in his wonderful book “Christ in The Psalms”…. which just tells you I’m not as far along in Fr. Pat’s book as I should be!

Someone raised the question of missing “assurance” for the forgiveness of our sins and joy…. and others seem to see much of the same thing or call the film…. “disturbing” or “troubling”. Mainstream it’s not. Watered down it’s not. But I’m just not sure I see this. Of course I’m thinking our expectations for folks in the far north just aren’t going to be met. Gray is a good day…. sun rare. Bleak is normal. Hey… we’re NOT in the Mediterranean islands! and shouldn’t be expecting Flipper to swim buy with “Thanks for the fish and all that…”! while some uptempo 1960’s music runs in the background.

I think Fr. Anatoly (my DVD translated it with a “Y”) was still engaged in working out his salvation with “fear and trembling”. Fr. Sophrony’s vision of “Keep your mind in Hell and do not despair” seems a more fitting description of the tenor the film conveys rather than “assurance”. By this I mean that there is a humility in his apparent ambivalence but still confidence in God…. and not doubt. If this is “assurance” it is a measured assurance that presumes to expect or demand nothing of God or for ourselves. As our Bishop Thomas once put it, “This ain’t handing God a job description.” So Maybe I’m missing something (surely), but I would tend to see ANY film rendition of “assurance” as something more Hollywoodesque… “bring up the violins here” and a segue to the usual syruppy hagiographic pap. Here the rendition offers something more akin to what I imagine is the reality of everyday temptation and being tried to the last breath. This seems to me more a realistic rendition or attempt to render a life of spiritual warfare… a rare vision. So no, this is not a picnic on a spring day with sunshine at the petting zoo, and those looking for something of this nature will be disappointed.

I wonder instead that the return of Tikhon isn’t in so many ways is Fr. Anatoly’s last temptation… or at least last great one…. as the finish on the casket was easily tossed off like a sugar coating. But Tikhon’s return is more serious. It seems to tempt the thought that all had been lived as a cruel hoax or accident of circumstance that had led him to a lifetime of repentance for an intention never fulfilled. Yes, he pulled the trigger, but what did he do… and what really did he intend? Fr. Anatoly is the ex-murderer who never murdered anyone. Who wouldn’t have wondered at a God who would offer this strange twist? Yet the significance of Fr. Anatoly’s releasing Tikhon’s daughter from the demon may perhaps parallel his own release from the demon within him that haunted his life… and he found peace. Tikhon forgives him. Unspoken is the implication that Fr. Anatoly seems as well to forgive Tikhon for not returning to search for him, for not releasing him from the burden of his memories, or seeking to recover his body. Law of the sea… ain’t exactly vague on the resposibilities of a captain…. even in war. Maybe it is too much to suggest, but it seems there is absolutely no question that the God who forgives is forgiven as well…. as if. Yet in case there is doubt… there seems to be the offset that at the last, he forgives Fr. Job enough to lie in his coffin and await his time.

So far as this newby is aware, there is not a notion in Orthodoxy that once we say, “Okay, I’m in”… all the hard work is over and “once saved forever saved”. This is more like a beginning rather than the end. And the notion or at least emphasis of the work on the cross is different in Orthodoxy than the views elsewhere.

Another point often made is that we Americans tend to equate Joy with Happiness… and how this narrowed understanding reflects the power of Madison Avenue rather than Gesthemane. I think the difference has something to do with the sense that there can be joy in the tears of pure prayer in Orthodoxy. We see this in the eyes of the witnesses attested to in our icons… that seem on verge of weeping. It is a joy that comes from a singularity of mind in prayer (Fr. Zacharias on Fr. Sophrony again), and it is a valued gift… often the result of channeling emotion into something more.

There is also a matter of factness in Fr. Anatoly that seems to come through in the directness of his prayers. But I think I am less clear on how much seems to depend on the belief of those over whom he prays…. at least for those looking for physical healing. The healing through release from demonic possession is something else. He doesn’t seem to demand much of their faith prior to healing…. just their presence. But he expects their gratitude afterwards to lead them into the Church.

I wonder at his gift of prophecy.. and whether he has it… or whether it is simply a challenge to the faith of those around him. Again, it is matter of fact that he can see in others what he cannot in his own place. I do not see him as broken, but focused, and I’m not sure that he is tormented by his sins… but more channeling the rememberance of his sins into sustaining his repentance…. to be the new man rather than the old man he was who shot his captain in fear. We are not used to this sort of talk…. it amounts to the usual sort of conversation stopper in American life… so to see it anywhere leaves us wondering…. so where’s the hot dogs, chevrolet and happiness? We want our holy men to be holy gurus and Ghandis and almost childlike in their simplicity… not complex questioners and pranksters. This is beyond our normal cultural understanding. Literally. Well….. we did have the Woodman (Woody Allen’s “Love and Death”…. but that was poking fun at Russian literature).

But in the end… for all those troubled by something of this movie…. as my wife would say, “This is a F-I-L-M, not a movie.” The most troubling thing is the sketchy match between the English subtitles… and the enormous amount of syllables spoken… which remain unremarked. Fact is… understanding the rest of what is said might change a whole lot of my understanding. Hmmmmm. Maybe that’s the path to humility… part of the prankster’s last laugh. You don’t watch these things for enjoyment or light entertainment or because you expect to understand them… you watch them for other reasons. For Orthodox Christians, I think it offers a window into an experience of faith we are unfamiliar with seeing in any place other than text. It puts legs to a number of things. It’s now available through Netflix.


  1. Hi! We have seen the movie a few times. I haven’t been reading any discussions on the movie because I like it (the movie). My interpretation of the ending was more of the theme of “everything happens for a reason” as in, he thought he murdered tikhon, became a monk, in order to eventually heal tikhon’s daughter of her demonic possession. All things to the Glory of God!

  2. Hi! Thanks for stopping by.

    I wondered what puzzled you to say you liked it… and then I re-read what I wrote… and I said, “Oh… I guess it sounds like I didn’t.” I think at the end, I’m thinking how others… especially non-Orthodox might see this. I did like the movie in a different way. The end seems to have several layers packed in. And I guess writing a review helped expand my appreciation for it…. if y’know what I mean. I think it grows on you as you give it time and reflection.

    On the other hand, it didn’t grab me like the whole and especially the ending of “Millions” . THAT is a great movie. Not Orthodox… but hey… still great.

  3. I’ve watched this film (almost called it a movie…) twice now, and I’m sure I’ll watch it again. I’d like to comment on Tikhon’s return, and what it meant to Fr. Anatoly. At first, it is tempting to define Fr. Anatoly’s sin against Tikhon as simply a murder, which turned out not to be the case. Remember though, that during the war, Fr. Anatoly was a very frightened man, afraid of death. He hid in the coal heap and was discovered because of his own physical weakness. Tikhon may not have been discovered at all were it not for Fr. Anatoly’s attempt to save his own life. And again, as the Nazi’s were leaving, he reveled in the fact that he was still alive, boasting about it. Fr. Anatoly spent his life repenting of all these things, and not simply his unintentional pull of a trigger. Americans tend to cling to “all’s well that ends well”. But what do we learn about ourselves if we take comfort in good endings?

  4. I see maybe three MOVIES a year and perhaps one FILM. This is truly an “Orthodox Film”, there is always more in literature to be plumbed than even the author intended simply because it reflects life’s reality. The realities Ostrog chronicles are human and eternal and is a Rorschach for the viewer.

  5. Thank you all. I’m happy to see folks still reading this. Wrote it ‘cuz most reviewers seemed to comment on its starkness in one way or another. And yeah… it’s got that Euro thing going… but I did like it…. just to make that more clear. Writing a review clarified more for me about the careful conception of the film. Teri_anna’s pointing to a detail I missed… and I know they’re more… but that’s just a reason to rent it again later. In fact, since you wrote, I’ve been formulating theories on that scene… but clearly I’ll have to go back and rewatch it before venturing there. FWIW, Steve’s got it right… this is an Orthodox film. Sympathetic, and done well. In reading “The Arena” you get much of what is conveyed here.

    And if I can add some clarity without giving the sense of pummeling anyone…. I would clarify that I think the film has a happy ending. And I’m a happy simpleton in favor of happy endings… I think we pray for that in every Divine Liturgy…so no problem for me there.

    If I were to explain my remark on liking “Millions” better, I should say it is that while I can be serious sometimes… I’m less comfortable there… and need the light of humor to break it…and have always enjoyed the British sensibility in particular (think Monty Python, John Cleese, etc.). And then there’s the heartwarming thing about children… (strike up violins) especially the scene near the end in front of the fire back by railroad tracks… that just grabs a parent’s heart. They are different films… and Millions is more a “story/plot driven movie” and not a character study…even if it still didn’t manage much of an audience. The Island studies, teaches and portrays; it draws you in and engages you – or it doesn’t (those who didn’t like it I guess); Millions entertains first and foremost. Different virtues, different story telling techniques…. and good to have both.

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