The Island’s Holy Fool

Faith and Film Friday: The Island

Editor’s Note: This is the third review in our series, Faith and Film Friday. Read the whole series here.

The title of this film warrants a disclaimer from the outset, especially to those avid movie goers who enjoy the big-budget, high-concept action, and exaggerated CGI films so characteristic of director and producer Michael Bay. The 2005 futuristic thriller headlined by Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson—to which I refer—bombed at the box-office, and only merits mention here due to unhappy coincidence. Regrettably, the aforesaid Hollywood flop shares the same title of the low-budget, consciously religious, and heart-rending film in question: The Island. The two films could not have less in common; and yet, the ominous title will forever—quite amusingly— link Michael Bay with Russian Orthodoxy.

Despite the rather tart introduction, this 2006 Russian film actually does begin with an explosion (alas, no CGI). The opening scene depicts an untimely encounter with German naval officers at sea, where the young sailor Anatoly and his captain, Tikhon, find themselves in the crosshairs of World War II politics. Faced with almost certain death, the main protagonist of the film, Anatoly, betrays his compatriot at the behest of these German officers. His treacherous deed prompts the Nazi soldiers to ridicule and scoff at the distraught executioner, and after planting dynamite in the hold of his ship, they leave him to die in the cruel obscurity of night.

From this rather bleak opening comes the thrilling and beautiful transformation of his soul. For when all seemed lost, when Anatoly was tossed to and fro by the sea, when his soul verged upon the precipice of hell, his body came ashore at the most unlikely of destinations, the land of a Russian Orthodox monastery.       

The remainder of the film chronicles Anatoly’s peculiar place in the monastery. After thirty years of prayer and penance, he has become, by the grace of God, something of a miracle-worker. His presence at the monastery attracts others from mainland Russia, who desire his wise counsel or seek consolation and healing from physical and spiritual maladies. The attention that this healing ministry brings to the monastery causes suspicion and animosity to grow in the hearts of certain monks, especially because of Anatoly’s rather austere and funny behavior.

Indeed, Anatoly is a strange bird, a very strange bird. During one memorable scene, this holy fool takes inordinate delight in mimicking the sounds and movements of a rooster—impressively so. The rationale behind his curious conduct and loose comportment evade the minds of the other, fairly serious and painfully somber, monks. For all intents and purposes, the latter monks appear emblematic of Eastern monasticism; each is marked by devotion and piety. The presence of the holy fool, Anatoly, however, reveals how little they know of God’s hidden and mysterious designs.

The inspiring tale is much more than monastic musings; it is a story of sin and grace, pain and suffering, a real microcosm of the Orthodox and Christian life, in general. The audience is introduced to the lived features of eastern monasticism: methodical chant, stunning iconography, a rich symbolism of the Cross, an experience of being alone with the Alone. But for all that, this holy fool enriches the reticent backdrop of winter with the assured promise of spring. He is, by the grace of God, an icon of Eternal Wisdom.

In both the East and the West, the presence and influence of holy fools has adorned the history of Christianity, puzzling men and women of this world, but surely entertaining those who, having set their sights on the Lord, understand the wisdom of the Cross:    

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever I will thwart.” Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe (1 Cor 1:18-22).

When the credits roll, the film might well leave you at a loss for words, not in the same eye-popping or ear-splitting manner as the Transformers franchise (another example of Michael Bay’s career accomplishments), but akin to the experience of reading a wholesome novel, authored by Tolkien or Undset. The movie provides real insight into the human condition and its response (or lack thereof) to grace, and for that reason alone, it is worth seeing The Island—again and again.

Next week we will review  A Man for All Seasons.

Photo by Yury Saygon (CC BY-SA 3.0)

From Dominicana Journal