The Island, No Not That One *Updated*
Posted On May 5, 2020
We’re not talking about the 2005 Michael Bay clone escape film of the same name, we’re talking about a quiet little Russian flick that is pretty much the exact opposite.
Although, this The Island isn’t without a good explosion and gunfight.
Apparently I’m not the only one fleeing the uncaring arms of Hollyweird for the loving embrace of Russian cinema. My writer bro Alexandry Constantine recommended a gray and stark and incredibly moving film set in the frigid wastes of northern Cold War Russia.
America’s most visible cinematic response to the godlessness of Hollywood films has been a string of high-profile feel-good “Christian” movies about modern consoomers who learn to slow down and get born again, and thus open a new and more neutered phase of serving the powers that be with hearts filled with kindness and love and happy hands Jesus.
I’m not fan of those.
When it comes to serving God and learning to find peace, The Island takes a very different tack. This is not a film created by followers of Christ whose favorite Gospel is the Gospel of niceness. It is a cold and calculating look at how truly humble men serve God with hearts filled with doubt, and how a truly fervent love of God often means serving Him by acting like a cantankerous old dick. Our protagonist is not a nice man. But he is a good man.
That is an important distinction and one all too often lost on the shepherds of God’s flock in these latter days of the Pax Americana.
The plot begins with a young man captured by Nazis during WWII. That young man is rescued from death by monks in a nearby Orthodox monastery, and lives the rest of his life wracked by the pain and guilt of what it took for him to earn a chance at escaping the clutches of the Nazi. Thirty years later he is prematurely aged, bent by years of labor, and his face gaunt and lined by decades of life as a Christian behind the Iron Curtain.
Rather than a straight plot, the film follows our protagonist as he helps guide those around him to make choices that glorify God rather than themselves. His compassion and kindness are contrasted by the harshness with which he demands the best from those around him. He is equally harsh witha pregnant single woman seeking absolution for her impending abortion, a mother asking for a miraculous cure for her son’s withered legs, a fellow monk who wants the peace of holiness without the sacrifice, and with a young woman literally beset by demons.
The film shows him with a keen insight, with foreknowledge of distant events, and a knack for seeing through the veil that separates the living world from the one beyond. Despite his obvious holiness, he remains very far from perfect. He is withdrawn, impatient, and callous in his own way. He has his own demons to fight, and we groan when he loses and cheer when he wins.
Everything becomes black and white. The cinematography is gorgeous, and the setting minimalist. The wide panoramic shots of the northern wastes and the claustrophobic and nearly decoration free interiors of the rough stone and wooden monastery buildings help to keep the focus on the characters, where it belongs. The lack of special effects make it easy for the casual viewer to hand wave away the miracles contained within the film as “coincidence”. For the faithful, they help the miraculous events feel a lot more real – we live in a subtle age, not the age of towering pillars of flame or disembodied hands writing on a wall* – and help ground the film in the reality of our world in a way that CGI and blaring symphonic hits would only undercut. In it’s own way, it chooses to show the supernatural in a way that is fitting, given that it is set in the natural world.
It is deep, and it is slow, and it is contemplative. The director lets things breathe and offers ample time for the viewer to ponder what he has just seen. He provides the viewer with time to wonder how well he would respond to the monk’s cranky orders, and to process that subtle holiness of his life.
I won’t recommend this movie. I’ve done the best I can to describe it to you. You should watch it – it will stick with you in ways that few films ever manage. But I cannot recommend it. Only you can decide whether you want to spend two hours face to face with the harsh reality of the darker side of serving God. We are in a fight for our souls here, and The Island invites you to a ringside seat for a two hour long bout between one man and his own demons. Should you watch it, you will find considerable wisdom in this film. And you will find that the wisdom if offers will leave your soul far more satiated that all the cleverness of a Hollywood film.
It isn’t a particularly fun film, but it is good one.
Viva Christo Rey.
*I hope. The epic ages were really hard on little guys like us.
[UPDATE: Alexander Hellene provides some additional background and insight in a recent post of his own:
As an interesting aside, lead actor Mamonov is himself a devout Orthodox Christian who, before converting in the 90s, was one of the Soviet Union’s most successful musicians, serving as the leader and guitarist of popular rock band Zvuki Mu. Though he still plays under that name, after conversion Mamonov left Moscow and retreated to the remote countryside. “To a large extent, he played himself,” Lungin said of Mamonov. An interesting case of art imitating life, although the word is out of Mamonov himself is able to perform miracles.
Go read the rest here.]