28 December 2008


The simplicity, the humbleness, the remoteness, the miracles converge into creating a timeless snapshot of the Orthodox spirituality, apart from the historical circumstances. Patriarch Alexei II of Russia praised Ostrov for its profound depiction of faith and monastic life, calling it a "vivid example of an effort to take a Christian approach to culture." (Wikipedia)

Over the holidays I had the opportunity to watch Ostrov yet again (Russian film portraying Orthodox spirituality). Afterwards my husband and I both commented on how the more we watch it, the more we get it. What I love the most are the prayers: the Jesus Prayer, Psalm 50, the Trisagion, the opening of Divine Liturgy... When I hear those oh-so-familiar words, I have a strong sense of home and peace whether it is being prayed in Russian, English, in my own parish, in a church in a different country (or even jurisdiction :) ), or in a film.

I jotted down some of the thoughts about it that have been floating around in my mind and thought I'd type 'em up--no particular agenda or message to this post. Mostly factoids. Probably will use bullet points, even. Whether or not you've seen the movie, this probably will seem quite random. Not sure if I'd call these spoilers, but I guess if you like to experience movies like this without any expectations or preconceived thoughts, you may not want to read this.

So anway...

  • I really noticed this time how there is no indication of disbelief or surprise when the monks find out that Fr Anatoly is preparing to depart this life and that he knows the exact day. Those who live holy lives of prayer more expect miracles and this sort of thing than they are surprised by them. They have a clearer understanding of reality and of what is the norm. The Orthodox approach to death is one of the things which will change me the most over time, I think. The balance of sober reality and peace is really beautiful, and I appreciate how it is portrayed in this film.

  • As a fool for Christ, Fr Anatoly disguises his greatness (God's grace) before others so as to avoid praise and elevation in rank. When his strange ways are judged, he only defends himself with Scripture--that really stuck out to me this time. Although he is simply following Christ's example with his responses, at first glance it looks like just another example of odd behavior. But he has truly become a stranger to this world, and he does not seek any justification from man.

  • This was the first time it sunk in that the cozy room where Fr Anatoly prays (keeps his icon) is his cell where he's supposed to sleep. However, he chooses to sleep on the rough coals without any bedding. Before, I recognized it as an aesthetic effort of depriving himself of unnecessary comforts. This time I see it as him keeping his sins continually before himself in order to stay in a constant state of repentence. He labors over the coal (symbol of his sin) during the day, sleeps on it at night, and suffers with it in his lungs. Because of his life of repentence and humility, God grants him the gift of tears, prayer of the heart, healing, and of clairvoyance.

  • I think the abbot Filaret is a great character. He seems peace-loving and unobtrusive. He sees Fr Anatoly's holiness and has the difficult job of reconciling (before the other monks) Fr Anatoly's unusual ways with the order of the monastery. I also notice that he does not seem intimidated by the fact that Fr Anatoly, a simple monk whom he probably helped to save, has apparently achieved a higher level of holiness than himself, the abbot. Also, during the movie his quiet demeanor is contrasted with a firey, obnoxious confrontation of his sin. As an observer it is easy to judge his character for being so attached to fine boots and linens, being an abbot and all. However, in "reality" (being that he's fictional), he lives in the harsh conditions of northern Russia on an island and takes comfort in a couple worldly things which he didn't even buy for himself. Those are small potatoes compared to my worldly appetite for comfort and fine things! What is most important is that he readily humbles himself, takes the correction and is thankful for it.

  • Frs Job and Filaret are convicted of their own downfalls just by interacting with Fr Anatoly in his regular day-to-day life. His virtues exaggerate their sins. Him sleeping on coals and doing such hard labor in his poor health is in stark contrast to the abbot's beloved luxuries. His humility and prostrations for forgiveness before Job frustrate Job all the more because he is not willing to let go of his pride. It is interesting how true that is to reality.

  • Lastly, it always strikes me how people come to Fr Anatoly looking for advise, prayer and miracles, but then are unwilling to accept all that is offered to them. They thought they knew what they wanted... The mother brought her son for physical healing, but did not care as much for his spiritual healing although that is the whole point of life and therefore of God's dealings with us.

If you haven't seen Ostrov yet, I highly recommend it. I have to admit (and warn you) that the subtitles are subpar for sure. But I have heard enough great reviews from English-only speakers to have hope that it can make some sense anyway.


Andy said...

I'm glad I came across this. I was just discussing this film with my spiritual father a couple of weeks ago, as he has not seen it. I think I need to buy this and go watch it with him :)

I enjoyed the film overall, but I think I specifically enjoyed the relationship between the characters of Fr. Anatoly and the abbot. It was very much an illustration of love. Additionally, Fr. Anatoly's "antics" are great, because it makes me think of the types who complain about how Orthodoxy is too rigid and stuffy; I remember reading about a certain monk (the name escapes me now) who was held in high regard, yet he would do things like jump up and down on his bed when he had visitors so they would not take him too seriously.

Angela said...

I'm glad to read some of your thoughts and see that I didn't miss as much as I thought I must have (because of the subtitles). I wondered if I would have enjoyed it as much if I didn't love you and Andrei and wasn't so interested in Russia and orthodoxy as a result. Yet, the film has stayed with me and many of the scenes are still very vivid in my memory.
I made some of the same observations but not all. I love your observation about the room where he was supposed to sleep. I also thought it interesting that an invitation to come to the "abbotry"? (is that a word?) to stay with the abbot was almost seen as horrifying idea to him. Why would he ever leave where he was called to work/live? Please don't make me leave! When I probably would have been complaining the entire time, and would jump at the chance to get out of there and to be closer to "greatness" by sharing a cell with the abbot.
I loved his assuredness, lack of doubt, and matter of fact way of sharing God's wisdom. I think this is where I fall short much of the time is in doubting God's word regarding my life and any wisdom he might be sharing on others' behalf. I believe that miracles are possible in this current time yet I believe that I limit God or at least deny him credit.
I still would love the Taraschuk commentary/translation as we watch sometime.
Thanks for sharing it with us.

Petronia said...

Thanks, guys, for your thoughts!

"I wondered if I would have enjoyed it as much if I didn't love you and Andrei and wasn't so interested in Russia and orthodoxy as a result."

Angela, I was actually wondering the same thing...how it is for a non-Orthodox viewer. We watched it once with a friend and, paraphrased, his two comments throughout were: "So are they trying to convert him (Anatoly) or something?" and "So it is basically about a crazy man." We tried to explain a little, but I don't think it helped. He just made me laugh. Our other friends seemed perhaps a bit perplexed throughout the movie and the ending kinda freaked them out.

Tony-Allen said...

I really enjoyed reading this, and I appreciate your thoughts. When I first saw the film it was at my church (actually Andy was there) and it was just before the Pascha fast and I had yet to be chrismated. It had a big impact on me in terms of learning about Orthodox spirituality.

I've always been interested in the relationship between Job and Anatoly. In particular near the end where Job shows Anatoly the lovely coffin he's had made for him, Anatoly puts it down because he wants something simpler, and Job gets upset, accusing Anatoly of pride. In many ways, he was right. I also liked one of the last shots, with Job literally carrying the cross designed for Anatoly.

One thing that always confused me though was the foreknowledge Anatoly had about his old captain, who he betrayed. It seems that for most of the film he thinks he's dead, then near the end he believes he's still alive and feigns ignorance when he's confessing his story.

Petronia said...

I always thought that God just closed his eyes to that particular knowledge up until the end--perhaps that is what allowed him to reach such a level of humility and repentance. He only understood that Tikhon was alive when the girl told him her father's name and after looking at and talking with Tikhon himself. My husband noted that Anatoly didn't ask the girl her name but only asked her father's name (like he knew hers already but not the father's).

In the end, both he and Tikhon feigned ignorance although they both knew that, well, they both knew. I always figured that it is a guy-thing or something :)

Tony-Allen said...

You hit the nail on the head there. God wills only what He will.

As for Anatoly and Tikhon, I dunno if it was macho attitudes. ;) It was most likely nervousness, since both men probably wanted to forget the past.

Tony-Allen said...

Also, unrelated note, but I've given you an award :D

::Sylvia:: said...

Well, you've made me want to watch this again. Maybe we'll have a treat and watch a movie with some popcorn tonight! Thanks! Hope all is well!