Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Island (Ostrov) -- Guilt and Forgiveness

Director: Pavel Lungin, 2006.

The Island opens with a scene of an old man rowing a boat to a lonely island in a bleak and barren winterscape in the late 70s. This wizened man carries a secret that haunts him and plagues him with guilt. A secret that has defined his life.

Flashback to 1942 and the man is young and shovelling coal into a furnace on a Russian barge laden with coal. When a Nazi gunboat bears down on them, the man and the captain hide in the mountains of coal. But his cough gives him away. He is caught and then forced to betray his captain's hiding place. When the Germans line the two up, a shot rings out, and subsequently the barge is blown up. The man winds up floating ashore, weak and wounded, on the island and is found and tended to by monks from the Russian orthodox monastery. He never leaves. breathtaking cinematography showing the cool blues and whites of the Northern Russian landscape, this Russian award-winning movie is a story of redemption: the redemption of the man, and the redemption of those who visit this man. He is now Father Anatoli (Pyotr Mamonov), one of the monks. But he lives in the boiler-room, stoking the fire, sleeping on the mounds of coal in this shack, while the other monks have more "luxurious" cells for their accomodation.

Anatoli lives an austere life. He gathers coal for their fire. He plays jokes and pranks on his fellow monks. And he is totally committed to God. He wanders the island praying aloud, reciting Scripture from the Psalms and the Gospels. His lonely life is focused on God. Even his fellow monks consider him odd and generally unlikeable. people, however, consider him something of a miracle worker, a modern-day prophet, who can perform miracles and exorcise demons. They come to this island seeking out this "holy man." This, in itself, is one of the reasons why he is disliked. Though he does not seek out this "fame," he treats these visitors with a severe compassion, one part gracious and merciful the other part brusque and harsh. He does not want them to know him, so plays little games to make them think he is merely a lowly servant. Yet, he helps them, he heals them, he casts out their demons.

Anatoli has a genuine connection with his God. Yet, he constantly prays for forgiveness for the sinner that he is. He is in no doubt about his condition. His past has burdened him. He cannot run from it. He experiences the joy in the simple act of walking in the snow, yet he feels a desperate need to be released from guilt. His spirituality is schizophrenic in this regard: joy and guilt married together in the same head.

The Island is a superb film of faith lived out. He illustrates a number of gospel stories, and gives a picture of what a prophet of God could have looked (and lived) like. In one unforgettable scene, the prayer of Anatoli is juxtaposed and contrasted with the prayers of the other monks. While they offer "normal" prayers, Anatoli cries out in desperation to God for forgiveness as a sinner. It is reminiscent of the parable of the tax collector and Pharisee who went to the temple to pray (Luke 18:9-14). Indeed, many of the monks are like the Pharisees, living out lives of outward religion not inward relationship. (How often do we who claim to be followers of Jesus actually live more like Pharisees?) a prophet, he acts as a mirror to the monks. In his actions, subtle and obvious, he helps them to see that they are still clutching to the trappings of this world. For the Father Superior, Anatoli's superior, it is only when a circumstance places him in intimate contact with Anatoli that his attachment to possessions is made evident to him.

Yet, as Anatoli brings social justice to his monkish community and they seek forgiveness from God and him, it is not until a surprising circumstance near the end brings felt forgiveness to Anatoli himself. In this respect, The Island points out that often it is harder to forgive ourselves than it is for God or others to forgive us. Even in repentance, we can carry unnecessary guilt if we do not let it go. When the Lord forgives us, based on the finished work of Jesus on the cross, we should forgive ourselves too. He has forgiven us all our sins, little or big. They are all paid for (Col. 2:13-14). Let's not be like Anatoli who punishes himself day after day for a sin that he committed yet has been forgiven.
On the other hand, let's learn to be like Anatoli in having a real and honest relationship with God. We can take to heart the model of a genuinely humble man who talked to God, often in Scripture, throughout the day, and was content with little, not striving to accumulate more than he needed. Truly, The Island offers a portrait of a man of faith.

Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs

1 comment:

  1. I like this film, It shows really well the Orthodox Christian belief of repentance, in which you are to repent in fear and trembeling.