I watched a film called ‘The Island’ the other day – I saw it whilst I was abroad, without the benefit of subtitles, when my Russian was pretty negligible. Watching it again, with some helpful English subs thrown in, I’ve decided it’s a fascinating film!
The film deals with the themes of guilt, regret and atonement. The main character, Anatoly, has the reputation of being a holy man, living on an island in almost complete isolation, apart from the poor and desperate people who come to him looking for help and healing. Anatoly appears to be a deeply spiritual man whom others respect, and yet he is unable to find peace – his actions in the past plague him and give him no rest. It’s noticeable that as he offers hope to others around him, he seems unable to find such hope himself.
The film has it’s strengths – the director has cleverly interwoven encounters with intriguing people into the plot, which are reminiscent of parables – both revealing something about what humanity is like (including Anatoly himself), but also the idea of God that the film maker has in mind, and what he demands of people. On a personal note, I loved the moment when Anatoly prompts a child to pray by assuring him that the Lord is kind. It captures something beautiful about the hope that is found in trusting in the goodness of God. The film is so engrossing because of the apparent struggle, seen in Anatoly’s life and story in particular, that this Lord who is kind, and who is appealed to for mercy and forgiveness, has not granted his servant peace. The search for redemption goes on.
There are also some less-satisfying elements about the film. (Spoiler alert!) Towards the end of the film, Anatoly discovers that the man he thought he had killed did, in fact, actually survive. He returns to Anatoly at the end of the film, seeking his help for his daughter. Far from bringing about a happy ending, which I presume is what the director was aiming at, I think this gives the film a somewhat hollow feeling. Having investigated what it is like to wrestle deeply with sin, guilt and how redemption can be found through the character of Anatoly, which is done well, the redemption we do see is far less complete, and far less cathartic than what the initial battle within the soul seemed to warrant. Anatoly seems to just ‘escape’ his guilt. It makes the struggles and soul-searching he went through look empty and purposeless. I’d be fascinated to know how much this rings true of an Orthodox approach to guilt – which visually and thematically, at least, provides the backdrop for the whole film.
The film is an unusual one – well-acted, with moments of light-hearted comedy and simple, but heart-warming presentations of joy and love, combined with a portrayal of the struggle to find redemption and forgiveness, which, though not entirely consistent or satisfying, raises some good questions and makes it well worth watching.