Story of Penance Resonates With Russian Viewers
Film About Monk Wins Praise From Church Plus Top Awards

By Nora FitzGerald
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 4, 2007

MOSCOW -- Even critics of Pavel Lungin concede that his films -- from his debut, the festival-darling "Taxi Blues," to the true-to-life tale "Tycoon" -- have a knack for hitting a nerve in Russia. His most recent film, "The Island," has touched on something more ephemeral. For many, it speaks to the Russian soul.

Filmed on the bleak and beautiful shores of the White Sea, the movie patiently observes the tempestuous solitude of Anatoly, a monk who served aboard a barge during World War II. He was captured by Germans and coerced into shooting his captain to save his own life. He survived and was taken in by monks at an island monastery.

His sin pushes him to the brink of insanity, but it does not stop him from playing the edgy prankster with his fellow monks or serving as an oracle to local villagers. A story of a "wise fool" healer atoning for a wartime crime, "The Island" asks the favorite Russian question: Who is guilty? And to that, it adds another: How can we be redeemed?

The movie "speaks to Russians who think that crime in this society goes unpunished. That no one can find the murderers of bankers and journalists," said Natalia Ivanova, a film critic and deputy editor of the magazine Znamya. "When I saw this film to the end, I saw all these connections and I understood its success. It gives people hope."

"The Island" began its journey classed as a not-for-everyone film and as a respectable entry in the usual festivals. It won six of eight categories at Russia's Golden Eagle film awards in January and closed the Sundance Film Festival. It recently was sold to a New York-based distributor, Film Movement, and is slated to open in U.S. cities this year.

After it opened in Moscow, priests and bishops began to bless the film, often standing in prayer outside theaters. The Russian Orthodox clergy's stamp of approval fueled suspicion among Russian critics, who compared it to old-fashioned party approval.

Lungin has repeatedly denied that the church ordered the film or helped to finance it, although he received funding from the government-owned television channel Rossiya. The budget for the film was about $2 million.

"It was just as surprising to me that the church accepted this film," Lungin said, smoking zealously in his apartment near the Moscow River on the quiet end of Novy Arbat, a busy street in central Moscow. "I thought they would have problems with something, at least in the details."

Instead, some bishops organized events around the film and advertised it in their churches.

Lungin said he believes in God but does not follow any structured religion. He seems more interested in the exploration and rejection of the values of the past 20 years, and he expresses deep disappointment in the post-perestroika era.

"The material world hasn't given us any answers to our questions," he said. "People feel lost in a spiritual way. . . . There are these feelings of guilt and sin and at the same time an idea that people can be redeemed."

International critics wrote that the film was reminiscent of "The Return," a dark meditation released in 2003 that won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. The rise of smaller, more artistic films suggests to some that Russian filmmaking has an artistic as well as commercial future.

"The Island," which is still showing in some theaters in Russia, made an early television appearance on Jan. 7 -- Orthodox Christmas. According to TNS Gallup Media in Russia, the film's viewership was second only to President Vladimir Putin's New Year's address. More than 40 percent of Russians have seen the movie, which once seemed destined for a small audience of intelligentsia.

The film stars Pyotr Mamonov, an actor and musician with cult status in Russia. In the 1980s, he fronted the underground punk band Zvuki Mu, which toured the United States in 1989. In 1990, Mamonov starred as a Jewish saxophonist and alcoholic in Lungin's "Taxi Blues," a film that earned Lungin the best director award at Cannes.

Then Mamonov, his career full of promise, became a hermit in a village outside Moscow. And Lungin moved to Paris to make films about Russia.

Lungin returned to Moscow in 2003 and, soon after, took on the script for "The Island," written by Moscow film student Dmitri Sobolev. The director persuaded Mamonov to play the protagonist.

At the Golden Eagle awards last month, "The Island" won in the categories of feature film, director, actor, cinematography, supporting actor and screenplay.

Mamonov's portrayal of Anatoly "is half-acting and half-Mamonov," Lungin said.

The actor is known in Russia for his unexpected appearances and y urodivy, or wise fool, ways. His rambling acceptance speech for his Golden Eagle -- during which he called Putin a "sissy," told Russian women to make babies and worried that his grandchildren would be speaking Chinese -- was yanked off the air by programmers but became a sensation on the Internet.

"The yurodivy speaks out what everyone else thinks and would like to say," said Ivanova, the film critic. "But the freak is the only one who can say it and get away with it."

Lungin, who is working on a biography of Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, said the film "was the opposite of mainstream, and then it was accepted by the mainstream. This was absolutely surprising, and it says something about how people are feeling."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company