Thursday, February 11, 2010

Review - The Island (Ostrov)

The Island has taken over three years to reach these shores, having been released – with some success – in its native Russia in 2006. This delay may suggest the picture is something of a tough sell, and that perception might be solidified by the film's aesthetic style, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the work of Tarkovsky. However, viewers expecting Pavel Lungin's film to be a hard slog may be surprised by just how light much of it is, with the central study of religious faith and guilt being offset by an unexpected, and most welcome, streak of absurd humour. This is mainly down to Pyotr Mamonov, a craggy old actor who plays the central role with remarkable energy and conviction. Mamonov is Father Anatoly, a monk living on a frozen and remote island that houses a dilapidated monastery. While the majority of monks who live here are pious and demur as you would expect, Anatoly is an eccentric who lives in the boiler room, rarely washes or changes his clothes, disrupts church services, and habitually plays practical jokes on his colleagues. For some reason – perhaps because his behaviour is so extraordinary – many locals have come to see Anatoly as a holy man with healing powers, and they line up for an audience with him.

Anatoly is a figure borne from the Russian tradition of the 'Holy Fool'; a seemingly unhinged character whose bizarre behaviour actually strikes at a deeper truth than that of the more pious and devout monks around him. His dedication to living without any luxuries embarrasses his fellow monks, and his advice to those who seek his help always demands some kind of sacrifice from them; one woman is told to sell everything she has and travel to Paris to be reunited with her husband, another told to spend the night at the monastery and risk losing her job in order to help her sick son. Lungin maintains a shroud of ambiguity around his main protagonist, allowing us to assume that he is simply kidding everyone, while also suggesting he may have some kind of divine influence. Mamonov's forceful and utterly believable portrayal keeps us guessing and keeps us entertained; at any given moment he could collapse to his knees in prayer or break out in an impromptu chicken impersonation.

There is a great deal to appreciate in Lungin's filmmaking, notably the manner in which the film's bleak and icy setting is captured with great beauty by his striking compositions. The Island throws up numerous fascinating ideas about the nature of sin, faith and redemption, but at a certain point Lungin seems to lose confidence in his narrative, and the film narrows into a deflating climactic third. For much of the film, Anatoly is tortured by the memory of a wartime crime he committed thirty years before, and the way the director returns to this incident at the film's close feels disappointingly contrived. The ideas that The Island attempts to deal with are too weighty and complex to be closed off by such a pat and conventional ending, but if Lungin is simply guilty of biting off more thematic content than he can chew, there are worse crimes for a filmmaker to be charged with.

*As a sidenote, the print of The Island that was shown to the press and is currently being screened at the Renoir cinema in London has a strange subtitling issue. At random, a number of lines are translated into Italian rather than English, and there seems to be no rhyme or reason for this. It isn't enough to spoil the film, but it is rather annoying, so if anyone knows what's behind this unusual discrepancy please let me know.