May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
September 16, 2008
(Ed. Note: Originally published at Film-Think.)
I was a bit surprised to see the drunk Jewish jazz musician of Taxi Blues wash up on the shore of Ostrov. In Lungin’s earlier film, Pyotor Mamonov plays the westernized odd-ball to an increasingly frustrated Muscovite taxi driver, his perestroika straight man. In Ostrov, Pyotor plays a similar sort of character as a monk who in the “holy fool” tradition rattles the cages of his cloistered fellows and heals the infirmities of those who have heard of his special gifts. The similarity between the jazz musician and the monk lies in their refusal to stay in one world or the other, occupying an in between space that rattles peoples convictions – as Lungin said, he is like “an exposed nerve, which connects to the pains of this world.” I like this description, a true Kierkegaard description, who asked and answered: “What is a poet? An unhappy person who conceals profound anguish in his heart but whose lips are so formed that as sighs and cries pass over them they sound like beautiful music.”
“Beautiful music” may be stretching it in reference to Father Anatoli, who lives in a coal chute and prefers his grating, disingenuous persona to the dignity expected from those holy enough to heal. But the film is interested in framing the rumpled Anatoli against the minimal splendor of this arctic island. He kneels along the rocky beaches, rows from shore to shore, penitentially lumbers coal across a ramshackle dock with Tarkovskian precision. The film roots his continual repentance in this picturesque space, turning his anguish into poetry. The island is cold and spare, but it is iconic, lending Anatoli’s plight a measure of art. And this makes sense in light of his conversion, washed up on the island after Nazis exploded his coal barge and forced him to shoot his captain. All these little Kierkegaard ironies, living next to the remains of the barge, wailing along the beautiful coast, crudely tricking others into better conceptions of holiness, lead to a great concluding irony involving his dead captain. And though it wraps the film up a little bit too tidily (when is faith and repentance ever tidy?), the film retains its credibility as a fable of spirituality. He has played so many well-meaning jokes on the locals and other monks, but the grand joke is on him, tricked by God into a life of faithfulness and the healing of others. Ostrov is an excellent witness to ideas and conversations about faith that proceed along unfamiliar or unexpected lines.