Casting former Russian rock star Pyotr Mamonov as a gaunt, scraggly bearded monk who works miracles by the icy White Sea, punchy helmer Pavel Lounguine ("Taxi Blues," "The Wedding") surprises followers with his less-virile but oddly fascinating "The Island."
Casting former Russian rock star Pyotr Mamonov as a gaunt, scraggly bearded monk who works miracles by the icy White Sea, punchy helmer Pavel Lounguine (“Taxi Blues,” “The Wedding”) surprises followers with his less-virile but oddly fascinating “The Island.” While not as poetic or narratively complex as Kim Ki-duk’s “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring,” which it superficially calls to mind, this parable about faith and salvation is addressed to the same kind of broad-minded arthouse audience drawn to spiritual themes. Refined visuals and well-paced narrative will clinch fest slots.
A closer parallel, though not at first so obvious, may be to Andrei Zvyagintsev’s mysterious “The Return,” also set on an island and also brushing otherworldly themes. Though in the current film all the main characters are monks, the pic’s soul doesn’t dwell on Orthodox religious ritual, but rather in an individual experience of eternity, reached after much pain and teeth-gnashing. Screenplay by young Dmitry Sobolev, a student at Moscow’s VGIK film school, has a familiar, almost folksy structure, making for satisfying storytelling but leaving viewers with less to ponder after the story’s final, largely foreseeable twist.
A short prologue is set on a dark night in 1942, when a Russian boat piloted by dashing young captain Tikhon (Aleksei Zelenski) is captured by a German patrol. As he bravely waits to be executed, the Nazi commander suddenly passes a gun to his quailing mate Anatoly (Timofei Tribuntzev) and orders him to do the deed, in exchange for his life. Hysterical with fear, Anatoly pulls the trigger.
The action then flashes forward to 1976. In a small seaside monastery, Anatoly (Mamonov) is now a balding old man. Black as the devil and covered with soot, he works tirelessly stoking the monastery’s fiery boiler with coal while he lives like a hermit in an outlying cabin. He has spent his life trying to expiate his guilt at killing the captain, but his soul can find no peace. Though his fellow monks avoid the eccentric fellow, he has earned a reputation among the local population for healing and foretelling the future.
Anatoly’s miracles always carry a heavy pricetag in his stern demand that the beneficiary — in one case, a pregnant girl; in another, a mother whose son can’t walk — sacrifice all their worldly goals to God’s will. He’s no less strict with his comfort-loving superior, Father Filaret (Viktor Sukhorukov) and the proud Father Job (Dmitry Dyuzhev), his antagonist. Both learn their lessons the hard way, in well-scripted scenes that could be inspired by folk tales.
A surprise ending, while affecting, is just too pat to illuminate much moral ground, and it is here that Lounguine shows his distance from the spiritual heavies of Russian cinema like Andrei Tarkovsky and Elem Klimov.
Mamonov, who played the dissolute saxophonist in Lounguine’s first, breakthrough film “Taxi Blues” (1990), may have aged less well than Mick Jagger, but he still emanates an intensity that makes it hard to look away from his craggy face. Ranting on about his sinful nature, he centers the film in a serious moral universe, one in which Sukhorukov’s chubby, comic Father Superior and Dyuzhev’s dandyish Father Job are simple foils. Yuri Kuznetzov as an admiral and Viktoria Isakova as his possessed daughter round out a strong cast in the revelatory final scenes.
Almost a sinful pleasure is Andrey Zhegalov’s striking widescreen cinematography. After the wartime sequence, shot in dramatic black and white, the unusual northern landscape yields to the austerity of drained monochromes lit by dazzling skies. Vladimir Martynov’s soundtrack incorporates traditional Orthodox music, tipping the scales on the heavy side in a dirge-like finale.