By Dimitri Mokhov
I was in two minds about watching this movie because the advertisements for it had been plastered all over Moscow, in a marketing campaign almost as loud as that for Night Watch. I normally shy away from such films, figuring that the louder the marketing the smaller the film. From the advertising I thought it was one of those “we are Russians, we are orthodox, therefore we are right and we are the best” sort of Russian films. Pavel Lungin, to date, has not attracted me as a director, because his trademark style has been selling images that are in demand in Russia: skinheads, poor miners, cowering Jews, and now, in the spirit of the historical moment, monks.
But I have to say that his new film The Island is as different as can be imagined from anything the French-Russian director has made before, as he moves from the comic, realistic human world he has previously charted, into an austere Orthodox religious environment.
Pavel Lungin moved to Paris, but he has been seen often in Moscow in recent years, what with last year's innovative television adaptation of Nikolai Gogol's Dead Souls, as well as the Kinotavr prizewinner Roots, also rather Gogolian in its theme. Before that there was Tycoon, the so-called ‘Berezovsky movie’ from 2002, and The Wedding from 2000, an ensemble comedy with deeper roots set in the Russian provinces. And it all started, of course, with Taxi Blues, a prizewinner at Cannes in 1990.
The Island took first place at the 'Moscow Premiere' festival of Russian cinema held in Moscow. The film was regarded as the best film by both the audience and the jury. The legendary ex-frontman of the Zvuki Mu band, Pyotr Mamonov, who stars in The Island, was awarded the prize of best actor. In recent years Mamonov himself had apparently disappeared from the scene, adopting a more traditional Orthodox lifestyle. In The Island, appropriately, he plays the central role of Father Anatoly, a fi gure whose expiation and atonement for his past sins provide the central element of the film.
During the Second World War, the barge on which Anatoly and his senior comrade Tikhon are transporting coal, is seized by a German patrol ship. Anatoly begs the Germans for mercy, they force him to shoot his commander Tikhon, and then leave Anatoly on the mined barge. The resulting explosion throws him on to a monastery island, and thanks to the help of the monks from a nearby monastery, Anatoly survives. Years go by. The Elder Anatoly is respected for his just life, and the help which he has given to the island’s visitors has caused him to be thought of as a great miracle-worker. However, the terrible sin of the murder he committed during the war does not give him peace.
You can say that the plot of The Island is a little lame, but the superb cinematography, the directing and the acting, make up for this weakness. The two other leading actors are Viktor Sukhorukov as Father Filaret and Dmitry Dyuzhev as Father Iov. Sukhorukov, in particulalar, is an outstanding actor, best known for the comic roles he has played over the last decade. Dyuzhev has played more than his fair share of gangster roles, too. Here, both men are acting against type, heavily bearded in Orthodox fashion. They play convincingly, but sometimes it is hard not to associate them with their earlier film parts.
The cinematography is by Andrei Zhegalov (who captured the bare northern landscapes in Alexander Rogozhkin's The Cuckoo). He has a wonderful feel for the coldness of the frozen north, and also for its beauty. If you have been missing a real Russian winter in Moscow, I recommend this fi lm, if you want to be reminded of what winters used to be like, and now seem to exist only on film.
For Lungin, The Island is a testament to his many talents as a director. He has shown that he is a master of comedy; now he shows that he is a master of tragedy.
The Island. Russia, 2006
Directed by Pavel Lungin
Starring Pyotr Mamonov, Viktor Sukhorukov, Dmitry Dyuzhev, Yury Kuznetsov