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Movie Review

In answering prayers, film explores Russian soul

When the people of the small northern Russian community in "The Island" need extra-strength prayer or a plain old miracle, they head to an Orthodox monastery and take a boat to an unfurnished shack where they plead with Father Anatoly (Pyotr Mamonov) to make it happen. The jury's out on whether he can, but he's treated like an oracle anyway. The movie, meanwhile, is an aggravating combination of piousness, arty self-pity, and knowing silliness meant to speak to higher spiritual truths.

Anatoly is wracked with guilt. During World War II, he worked on a barge where Nazis forced him to shoot his captain dead. He survived and was taken in by monks, becoming a monk himself. The movie skips ahead to 1976, where we discover that the years have not been kind to Anatoly's peace of mind. With all respect to the old man's holiness, he's a crackpot. His days include wandering along the frozen shores of the White Sea, begging God for forgiveness, hauling wheelbarrows of coal, playing pranks on his fellow monks, and, of course, dispensing distinctly idiosyncratic advice.

Take for example his recommendation to the widow who wants to send a message to her long-dead husband: sell her earthly possessions and go west. Her man's alive - in France. How does Father Anatoly know? He goes into another room, closes the door, and has a conversation with himself.

Written by Dmitri Sobolev and directed by Pavel Lounguine, this is not a comedy, not essentially, anyway. Nor is it a true examination of a man's psyche come undone. Lounguine's film is about the ravages of guilt - how Anatoly's coerced killing has driven him insane. But the characters, all of them, are so unvarying in their neediness and sorrow that the experience of watching them plead for miracles or redemption is exasperating. The camera gazes at the dilapidation of Father Anatoly's hovel (piles of petrified wood near the dock), while the soundtrack, with its chorus and twinkling piano, conspires to contribute a dint of rising holiness ("aah-aah-aah-aah") as the Father pushes his wheelbarrow up and down the dock.

Lounguine's best-known movie here was 1990's "Taxi Blues," a bleaker but far richer depiction of human relationships, with a much younger-looking Mamonov as a shiftless saxophonist (a former cult rock star, he seems positively ancient in this new movie; older than his 56 years). "Taxi Blues" also managed to give us a vivid, fervent look at modern Soviet Moscow. It was the work of a natural director.

"The Island" seems a lot less certain as a piece of filmmaking. But then again the movie feels less like a character study than a no-frills examination of the Russian soul. In its native country, the populace went for it. According to The Washington Post, a television broadcast of "The Island" in January was second in viewership only to Vladimir Putin's New Year's Address.

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The Island

Directed by: Pavel Lounguine

Written by: Dmitri Sobolev

Starring: Pyotr Mamonov

At: Museum of Fine Arts, today and various dates through Nov. 3

Running time: 112 minutes

In Russian, with subtitles