An Island of Guilt

By Tim Winterstein

One of my favorite lines from any song is “Every moment is a red light/a red light you just run” (“Puttin’ Out Fires,” Bill Mallonee [Vigilantes of Love]). It highlights the futility of trying to undo something that is in the past. As we feel the burden or the guilt of some action in the past, especially actions that we cannot undo, we constantly seek to atone for the action and justify ourselves. It’s a natural reaction on our part to want to make right what we’ve done wrong. But how can those wrongs in the past ever be made right? They’re over and done with, and yet we’re not free of them.

And so it is for Anatoly in The Island (Ostrov), a 2006 Russian-language film set primarily on a remote island in Northern Russia. And even though the film begins in the water around the island, the story begins on a Russian tugboat in 1942, which is then boarded by Nazis for no apparent reason other than sadism. They tell Anatoly that if he wants to live, he must shoot the captain of the tugboat, Tikhon. Explosives set by the Nazis quickly reveal that they had no intention of letting Anatoly or the boat survive.

Orthodox monks find Anatoly washed up on the shore. The next we see of him, thirty-plus years have passed and he lives in a furnace room, where he does exactly the same job he had on the tugboat, collecting and shoveling coal into a furnace. It appears, in fact, that Anatoly is engaged in the Sisyphean task of reliving his time on the tugboat by doing that work multiple time each day. He pushes his wheelbarrow the length of an uneven bridge out to what remains of the tugboat, collects coal, pushes the wheelbarrow back, and then he does it again.

Day after day, he does this, and somehow, in the thirty years since he arrived, the people who live in the area have come to think of him as a holy man who does everything from giving good advice to healing the sick and casting out demons.

But his holy fool routine, though perhaps genuine (and productive for the people who come), seems to be a mask over his own pain, guilt, and sin. He saved others, but he can’t save himself. The central scene of the film comes when the father superior’s cell burns down and he says that what he really always wanted was to live a solitary life in the wilderness as a hermit. So, he lays down his blanket on top of the coal next to where Anatoly sleeps.

But after Anatoly sees him polishing his boots (a present from their patriarch) one night before bed, he locks the door. When Father Filaret wakes up, he sees him cutting up and throwing his boots into the fire. When Filaret asks what Anatoly thinks he’s doing, he says, “Don’t you know? Most sins nest in bishops’ boot tops.” Then Anatoly stokes the fire and says that he’s going to smoke out all the demons in the room, and Filaret finds that he’s locked in. When Anatoly says that they finally got all the demons, he hammers the lock off the door, and Filaret stumbles into the night. But Anatoly takes the blanket, jumps on the “vicious demon” inside it, and throws it into the sea.

Filaret thanks him for exposing both his clinging to material goods and his lack of faith for fearing to die. He says, “I have little virtue, but much sin.” Anatoly says, “Virtue? My virtues stink to the Lord.” It’s almost a Luther-like moment, that no matter how many years he tries to get out from under the pile of coal, there’s still more. Thirty years he’s been shoveling that same boatload of coal, and it never is finished. Where is the mercy? How will he find peace? I’ll leave the film’s answer to that question for the viewer.

This is a film of contrasts—between the wise and the foolish, the guilt-ridden and the merciful, the angry and the peaceful, the content and the striving, the heavy and the light. Anatoly’s most significant contrast is between the certain self-knowledge of his own guilt and the fact that people are convinced he’s the holy man out among the monks on the island. But like the never-ending coal, the island (which he cannot, finally, leave) becomes a metaphor for the isolation he feels in his guilt, even if other people can still find their way by boat to the little monastery.

It’s a beautiful and moving meditation, and its numerous awards are well-deserved, including being nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival and being the closing film for the 2006 Venice Film Festival.

Finally, the cinematography and a soundtrack made up mostly of simple piano and strings imbue the film with such a sense of serenity—even in the cold of Northern Russia—that I enjoyed simply soaking it in (even when not every word seemed to be translated by Amazon’s subtitles). There is a lack of color that, far from distracting the eye, gives it an unexpectedly rich texture. And even with its heavy themes, it is as far from ponderous as it could be. The Island deserves to be much more widely known.