July 18, 2015
Movie of the Week: The Island (2006)
Islands are all the rage in Russian movies. The Return, The Forty First, Cold Summer of 1953 all take place (or at least the crucial events of the film take place) on an island. It’s like they are implying Russia is an island or something… So why not make a movie actually titled The Island and make it official?
Now, about The Island: the movie’s action begins in 1942. A German warship happens upon the island where there is a stranded Soviet tugboat with a barge full of coal, manned by only two people, an officer by name of Tikhon and a sailor. Confronted by the Germans, the sailor first reveals Tikhon’s hiding place and then, to save his own life, he shoots Tikhon with a pistol provided to him by the Germans who then depart and detonate explosive charges which destroy the tug and the barge. The sailor survives and is rescued by mysterious figures who are likely the monks who we see again after the movie fast-forwards to 1976.
I think understanding this complex movie depends largely on what the movie’s introduction represents. Should it be taken literally, at face value, or is it an allegory? I’m thinking it’s allegorical. Which means it isn’t meant to represent the German invasion of USSR. Rather, the tugboat scene is supposed to represent nothing other than the break-up of USSR in the late 1980s and the Western powers’ role in it.
The Island is obviously Russia, the stranded tugboat is the troubled Soviet state, and the two crewmen represent the two factions of the political elite which was by that time divided in generational terms. And it is not inaccurate to say that the younger Soviet apparatchiks finished off the older, more senior, Soviet elite with the support of the West, which then proceeded to dismantle the Soviet state. So now the surviving sailor has become the Holy Man Anatoliy who helps maintain the monastery (presumably a symbol of Russia’s identity?) on the island by heating it with the coal (clearly a reference to Russia’s dependence on natural resources in the immediate post-Soviet era) from the sunken barge.
But it turns out that Tikhon has miraculously survived being shot and falling into the ocean, and his survival is not really explained. Yes, Tikhon says he was picked up by another Soviet ship, but did Anatoliy’s fervent prayers on his behalf have anything to do with it? The movie never comes out and says it openly but it does leave that possibility open. Moreover, once Tikhon (now an admiral) returns to the Island to examine the site of the events of 1942, Anatoliy feels he can now finally die in peace (which he does, almost as if on command), which gives the impression of a change of the guard. The new post-Soviet state has matured, has recovered from its Time of Troubles, so everything will return to normal. But it’s the Eternal Russia that’s represented by the monastery and not Anatoliy that keeps things together in Tikhon’s absence.
Because Anatoliy’s tenure on the Island cannot be described as “normal.” While he tries to minister to the people, one doesn’t get a sense he knows what he’s doing. Frankly, some of the advice he gives out would likely have disastrous consequences if implemented. It strikes me as a reminder the incompetence of the post-Soviet elites that have ruled the country in the aftermath of USSR’s break-up.
Anatoliy does, however, get a couple of things right. He cures Tikhon’s daughter of her mental illness (and women tend to allegorically represent the people as a whole in Russian movies) and he also convinces a fellow monk to abandon his materialistic ways by…burning his boots and blanket and subjecting him to extreme heat and smoke from the coal-fired furnace which, if not hell, certainly strikes one as a pretty close representation of purgatory.
Which is a pretty good representation of the 1990s. The movie’s authors seem to be making a statement that the 1990s were a purifying experience for Russia, one that cleansed it of sin, one that taught it to recognize what’s really important and what is not. Again, there’s some merit to making that argument. Today’s Russia is not the USSR of the 1970s when the West was the “forbidden fruit”. The 1990s have dispelled those illusions pretty effectively.
The film even takes one extra step in its final scene which shows a boat carrying a priest with a cross and a coffin containing Anatoliy’s mortal remains sailing off toward the horizon. Which is, in effect, the flipped version of the movie’s beginning. The movie starts with a German warship arriving at the island on a mission of destruction as a representation of the effect of Western values and interests on Russia. And it ends with a Russian boat departing the island and going off into the world. Presumably on a mission of peace which can be achieved by propagating Russian values?