Pavel Lungin directs a moving and provoking film in Ostrov. I was left truly touched, like how beautiful music resonates within you. Ostrov is about making one’s way through the murky swamp of pain, regret, and sin to find God. At the beginning the movie starts during World War II. Anatoly, the russian maniacal teenager, is forced to shoot his commanding officer and comrade or die himself by the hand of the nazis. Left for dead, he is rescued by a group of ascetic Eastern Orthodox Monks who take him in. Eventually we discover the last thirty years of his life have been lived on a small group of islands where he has toiled away with a wheelbarrow and coal. He appears quite mad from his behavior and words. His fellow ascetics tolerate his antics, but only barely. Mostly they grow agitated at the reputation he’s earned from the surrounding towns and villages as a Holy Man, with people flocking to him for his advice and blessing. With each encounter his promises and instructions are bizarre, and only at the end of the film do we see the implied rationality of Anatoly’s irrationality.
But enough of a synopsis; let me focus now on the Mis en Scene’. This term pronounced in your best french accent accounts for the entire compilation of visual elements found in the film. Color, lighting, scenery, costume, and character movement all are accounted for in the Mis en Scene’. First, Anatoly is trampled upon by the Nazi soldiers. One soldier steps on his neck. Later, a frame sequence focuses on Anatoly’s face buried in the mud of the White Sea. He is basically prostrate before the world, dirtied with his sins, almost despicable. From there, he is carried by the monks to shore, representing the beginning of his spiritual journey. He is found in the water, which may also represent a type of baptism or new beginning.
Father Anatoly is surrounded by the sea. Several scenes frame the islands as a tiny spec lost in a great expanse. Many times Anatoly will pray, but he will look outward towards the sea. The vastness of the water signifies the all powerful God, and Anatoly recognizes this. Thus when he is accused of facing the wrong direction during communion, to him he understands it is not to materials and idols he turns his attention, but beyond. Towards the great and eternal God. In many scenes Father Anatoly’s eyes raise above the horizon as he looks beyond the events and struggles of this life to the greater meaning and purpose. To everyone else this seems absurd, but to Anatoly it is the only way.
The island itself symbolizes a separation from God. Like the fall of Adam, who was cast down after his sin, the monks cast themselves away from the world. Father Anatoly is the farthest away from the actual continent, requiring an additional walk across a wooden bridge to reach his coal hut. And like Moses, Jesus, and other prophets, Father Anatoly takes himself even farther away from the world to commune personally with God. With other prophets who went up to the mountains, we see Anatoly boat himself out to a grouping of rocks where he wrestles with God over his sins.
In one scene, the group of rocks to which Father Anatoly travels to is covered in moss. The moss grows even in the most inhospitable places, which Anatoly notices in one scene. He even tastes the moss, whose existence on the rocks mimics the power of God to give life even to places seemingly impossible. Like this, Anatoly hopes that eternal life can be given to him who has sinned so grievously against god.
Even the ascending placement of Anatoly’s character in the film is important. As stated before, Anatoly starts the film with his face in the mud. Later, the camera looks upwards when he sits on a wooden bell tower and casts down a burnt log at his father superior. It represents is heightened spirituality and closeness with god. As well, his appearance is not one of a well kept clergy but of the savior himself, who dwelt with the lowest of the low as a poor carpenter. His face is always chafed and soiled, his clothes ripped, his dwelling is not on a bed but on coals. While his spirituality is great, his humility is that of a true ascetic. We know this even by his appearance alone. Conversely, in one scene the father superior plucks an egg from a hand woven basket. The walls of his home are bright, and he has tables and chairs. We almost believe he is about to cook the egg to eat. Who would wait for an egg to be laid with such anticipation except one of hunger? Instead, we see the yolk land onto a plate and the yolk is dabbed to remove a dusted stain from a painting. Where Anatoly’s dwelling is the dirtiest and lowest, father superior’s is the greatest.
The weather proceeds to winter as the film comes to a close. Winter, as always, represents the twilight of life, and foreshadows the end of Father Anatoly. But not before an incredible and fitting climax to the film. We end saddened but uplifted. The film can only strengthen a christian believer’s faith, no matter how predictable or unpredictable the movie seemed.
I can only add that as I walked away from the film, I knew I may never have a faith like Anatoly’s, but my entire life I have tried to search out God’s mysteries diligently. If it were to all end, at least this could be said of me.