Our consciences remind us that we have all done things to murder the good in this world. Purity and sainthood have little to do with the existence of the average citizen, and those for whom these sacred terms apply will likely elude our ken. The vast majority of these souls are indeed pure: there is almost nothing to be gained from the material world by adopting such a stance except posthumous recognition, and by that point their true reward will have been bestowed. However you feel about such sacrifice − whether you think it a refuge for the weak and untalented or a bastion of hope for us all − life's comforts and pleasures should not be relinquished by those who seek acknowledgement in their community and beyond. The only persons who should enter upon such deprivation are those whose souls give them no other choice, and it is these desperate shades who will always live in implacable suspicion. They will be chastised for always taking the high road, the hard path, the last sip if there is still left a sipful in the chalice. They will be asked why they cannot deign themselves to be as lowly and fallen as the rest of us. Only rarely do we ask them what their motives might be for such a life − an inquiry which brings us to this extraordinary film.
The film is divided in two, with the first part seemingly lasting a few minutes in reality and a lifetime in the soul of one simple man. That man is Anatoly (Petr Mamonov), a stoker on a Soviet tugboat in the White Sea with one shipmate, his captain Tikhon. The year is 1942, the acme of the Axis powers, and the slow revelation of a German ship and the crooked cross in black, red and white produces the same dread that the Jolly Roger used to have on unfortunate mariners. The German forces storm the ship then grimace at the helpless duo as if disappointed that there is so little to destroy. Tikhon faces certain death with a cigarette and a lewd gesture; Anatoly begs for his life. An understandable display, perhaps, but one that turns into a crime of cowardice that cannot be rewarded because he is dealing with the hounds of hell. As the treacherous hounds break their promise and detonate the ship anyway, Anatoly survives and is washed ashore. He survives but has willingly murdered another human being in exchange for his own life, and for that he will have to pay.
His penitence we witness thirty-four years later. We find him older, grizzled, almost toothless, on the same shoreline which he feared for a few critical minutes he would never see again. He has become a monk but remained a stoker, and his hands and face are almost never washed. He lives alone, sleeping on his coals, barely eating or drinking out of a filthy porringer, and picking up rocks, the pieces of the world he shattered when he killed his only friend. His hod and wheelbarrow suggest perpetual work, the endless toil of Gehenna, and we constantly see what he sees: the waves of eternity that shall never rise or fall but stay on as the moisture of our own days evaporates. Anatoly sings, prays, and mostly keeps to himself, but there is an element of mischief that implies we are dealing with a holy fool. Holy fools have had their share of limelights in art (perhaps most notably in this novel), but the majority of them remain unexplained or relegated to the contemptuous moniker of "imbecile zealot." Yet Anatoly is no fool; he understands that he has been given a second life in order to repent his sins and help others dispense with theirs. He even writes a petition to the Almighty, impales it on a the mast of a miniature raft and casts it off in prayer for his survival of one more winter. His powers of healing and clairvoyance, a burden even for a person unconcerned with how others view him, do not weigh him down as much as inform his austerity. What good are the vanities of modern existence if only God grants true power? At every turn his colleagues, Father Job (Dmitrii Dyuzhev), and the leader of the monastery, Father Filaret (Viktor Sukhorukov) try to undermine Anatoly. Perhaps because they want him to be a monk, not a saint (although Job suggests that's precisely what he might become), and because all of them need to survive and, in these oppressive Soviet times, martyrs are omnipresent. But they do sense his sins, which he mentions repeatedly and frantically as if they gnawed at him day and night. "Why did Cain kill Abel?" he asks Job, who thinks he is being ridiculed and walks away.
Three stock situations are presented to Anatoly the healer and mystic, and his treatment of the afflicted displays his understanding of what his compunction is supposed to achieve. He is first approached by a woman who is pregnant, a fact which, of course, he knows beforehand. She wants his blessing for a selfish choice, but he advises her to keep the baby, because "no one will want you without the child," so she might as well take comfort in her offspring. He also chases her halfway down the pier back to the mainland with no small ferocity that indicates he is not a willing saint but a conduit. A widow informs him that her husband, also a victim of the Great Patriotic War, has been appearing in her sleep. His blithe response is that her husband never died in Russia but is now dying in France, where he recommends that she travel. His treatment of a mother of a lamed child called Ivan (a tip of the cap to this film by this director of genius) has much the same flavor, a miracle bereft of beatitude, a resplendent exhibition of unfettered will. Anatoly bends off the screen while reciting his prayers for Ivan, and his prayers are neither the maniacal chants of a fanatic nor the rote memorization of someone who has long since lost interest or belief in his rituals. Instead, they are the pleadings of an average man who has an enormous burden on his conscience and is almost embarrassed to ask for a small favor. With the child now walking with a limp, he castigates the mother for leaving immediately for work and recommends that they stay the night for Filaret to bless the boy, adding that, "there is no point to go to work; a pipe has broken and everyone is getting three days' unpaid leave." All these mystical insights are said casually, as one would understate any plain fact, because Anatoly is not a saint but is a vehicle of divine inspiration, as open and legible as the scriptures themselves. Then one final visitor comes to ask for his aid and he knows that this may be the last person he will ever see.
The time period selected was not the most felicitous for the Russian Orthodox Church, but it just so happens to be the heyday of Tarkovsky's masterpieces. Like in Tarkovsky's films, nature here reflects the intricacies of the human soul; God reverts to being the coherent sum of all natural forces, of time, space, and eternity; winter is the discontent of the universe and summer its passion. We look out onto the island and see Anatoly in placid isolation; we are constantly asked to monitor the water as if there one might discern the hideous details of his crime; and the monks who doubt Anatoly also fear the purity that he has embraced. One notices where Anatoly's eyes are directed as Filaret expresses his gratitude for having saved him from his blanket and boots, man's comfort during night and day ("Most sins," quips Anatoly, "nest in bishops' boot tops"). Those eyes are reliving another horror, not the small scare that Filaret received from the smoke-filled hut. And so when Filaret confesses he "was afraid to face death unrepented," we see Anatoly's face glaring straight on at the death he cheated thirty-four years ago. Yet the most important and effective aspect of Island is the personalization of Anatoly's struggle. His is not a tale of glory, nor even of redemption, it is one of mission, of sensing that he was put or allowed to remain on this earth to change it one small step at a time. And while the name choices of Job and Filaret may be ironic in their symbolism, Anatoly's is not. His is the Greek East, the sun that has risen on Christianity, the sun that will never set, the sun that will burn him with the gravity of his crime until he makes amends. And in his wretched life he has probably made more amends than all of us combined.