Perhaps it's my own religious upbringing, or maybe my psychological makeup, but stories involving characters wrestling with guilt, who seek to atone for actions of their past, almost always prove to be fascinating for me. And Pavel Lounguine's The Island is certainly no different. Pyotr Mamonov plays Father Anatoly, a man who has been living with a terrible secret for thirty years.
While a sailor during World War II, he was forced by the Nazis to shoot his captain, only to be left for dead himself when they blow up his ship. After washing up on the shores of an Orthodox monastery's island, he becomes a monk and devotes the remainder of his days to atoning for his terrible deed.
However, he's not exactly the most humble or passive of souls. While he spends much of his time in the monastery engaged in backbreaking labor, hauling coal and maintaining the monastery's furnace, he's also something of a prankster. Equally consternating for his fellow monks is that Father Anatoly is held in some esteem by the local populace, who see him as something of a prophet (he certainly looks the part, with his scraggly beard, rotten teeth, and fiery gaze). Which results in a steady stream of individuals arriving at the monastery, seeking healing and spiritual guidance while distracting the monks from their sacred duties.
What is perhaps most interesting about The Island is its treatment of Father Anatoly's supernatural "gifts". As the film continues, it does seem obvious that the "holy fool" does seem to possess some measure of spiritual insight that his brothers lack. However, any supernatural events that do take place in the film are presented in as unglamorous and straightforward a manner as possible. When Anatoly heals a young boy's crippled leg, there are no bright flashes of light, no swells in the soundtrack to clue us into the fact that Father Anatoly is a channel for divine powers. The miracles just happen, in much the same way they happen for Bresson's country priest.
Additionally, the monk's pranks are much more than the acts of a mere joker. His pranks, as confusing and frustrating as they are, always seem leave their victims in a better spiritual state. For example, Father Anatoly isn't above scaring his abbot with fire and suffocation in order to cause the man to renounce worldliness, or greasing his door's handle to teach a fellow monk a little humility.
At times I was reminded of Jesus' parables, which often seem silly, inconsequential, and downright obtuse, but which contain deeper spiritual truth. Like his prophecies, which sometimes aren't so much prophetic as they are common sense, Anatoly's rather unconventional behavior serves to cut through the religious formalism and legalism, cutting through to the heart of the matter (another similarity to Jesus' parables, whose unconventional imagery was intended to circumvent the formalism of the religious leaders of the time).
However, there is no doubt that Father Anatoly, all pranks aside, is a truly penitent man. Much of The Island follows him as he steals away from the monastery and wanders through beautiful, foreboding countryside (captured in all of its rugged beauty by Lounguine's camera) earnestly reciting the same prayers for forgiveness, the same passages of scripture time and again.
Such devotion and repentance deserves a suitable climax, and it's here that The Island stumbles somewhat. While the ending certainly provides some closure for the troubled priest's life, it also wraps things up a little too neatly. Indeed, the events leading up the film's climax are actually more climactic, proving, that Father Anatoly is righteous man beyond any doubt.
However, issues with the ending are very much a minor quibble, as it's much more of a character study than anything else, placing the viewer solidly within the rhythms and movements of a distant monastery in the middle of nowhere. This isolation forces us to focus almost solely on the character of Father Anatoly, and Mamonov's performance here is excellent, capturing the priest's quirks and contriteness, his madness and his righteousness.