Pavel Lungin’s The Island offers many answers to this question, so many answers, that it could stand as a textbook for future filmmakers attempting to capture religious or spiritual experience. The Island lands at the opposite end of the spectrum from films like The Exorcist or(gulp) Constantine, both of which seek to dazzle and shock the viewer to a state of physical and mental catharsis, as if attempting to match the gravity of their spiritual subjects.
The Island does not depend upon such heavy-handedness. It is a quiet film, with muted scenes that might have been rendered with more poignant drama. The setting is a remote monastery on a tiny island somewhere in the frozen north coast of 1970’s USSR. The main character in this film is a holy man named Father Anatoli, who lives on the edges of the monastic community. Anatoli lives an existence more humble and less official than that of the other monks, and yet people travel to the island from far away hoping to receive guidance and healing from him. He prays seemingly indirect prayers over his afflicted visitors, and they find physical healing almost as an afterthought compared to the larger concerns and bondage in their lives. The monk seems to have prescient abilities: he knows when tragedy will strike, and he warns others with a lightness of touch, using riddles and subtle, creative hints, as if tragedy is not meant to be averted so much as it is meant to be endured. He sees to the heart of what torments other characters around him.
But this holy man is no ascetic, superhuman, but rather a complex character capable of deep regret and constant explorations of his own depravity. In the end, it is Anatoli who needs healing and freedom from the guilt of a troubling sin from his distant past – a sin that has plagued him (though it has also fueled his spirit) all his life. He is as much a wise man as he is a trickster and a prankster. The monks around him don’t know what to do with him. He doesn’t even seem to know what to do with himself. Half the time, he puts on an act with his visitors,pretending to be a kind of janitor to the holy man that he tells his visitors is in a small cell inside the infirmary where he lives. Anatoli pretends to be the voice and ears of someone larger than his own life can be.
Most stunningly, Father Anatoli works to free a couple of characters from demonic oppression. The most serious of these scenes is very muted, and the other is almost comical. Where other filmmakers might lean toward the overly theatrical, Pavel Lungin renders the more serious scene quietly and yet without minimizing the gravity of what is happening unseen. You might even move through this scene without knowing what has exactly happened. Which is partly the point. This film doesn’t seek to encompass spiritual reality or capture it apart from the almost mundane physicality of natural elements and words quietly spoken: the commonplace movements of water, snow, ice, wind, and the simple removal of a hat before a seemingly simple prayer.
The film renders its raw setting with elegance, and yet it also does so with a striking plainness, with patient shots of snow and ice on the water and under the water, of clothing tattered and darkened by soot and smoke, of a shifting landscape that changes with the coming and going of the tide.
The spiritual is not merely contained in the physical; the spiritual is physical, and this film does not seek to lay it bare, except by helping us to see physical elements in varying ways: physical elements that reveal as much as is needed in order to tell a story so large, and so loud, that you can only bear to see it in the drifting flakes of snow or hear it in the whisper of a breeze.