Holy Fool

A few weeks ago Fr Ioan Badilita, Romanian priest and Dogmatic professor at the Theological Seminary in Iasi, encouraged me to watch The Island. I immediately ordered it from Amazon. This past Friday evening my wife and I sat down and watched it.

I loved it … no … that is not the right word. I was moved and inspired by it. It touched my soul. I know I will watch it again. It is a movie that I need to watch once a year. Lent would be the right time.

The Island presents the story of a man who commits a terrible act of betrayal and violence, becomes a monk, and spends the rest of his life offering penance and tears to God. And to his surprise, irritation, and bewilderment, God makes him a fool for Christ and worker of miracles. Fr Anatoly does not wander the streets nor does he prophesy to emperors, as did St Basil the Blessed. His life is restricted to a small monastery and a nearby island. Nor does he serve the faithful as a venerated starets, in the mode of St Seraphim of Sarov. His fellow monks see him not as a confessor and spiritual guide but as a sower of confusion and disorder within the community—that is Fr Anatoly’s charism. Through his eccentric witness and queer behavior, lives are changed, the lame are healed, devils are cast out, sins are forgiven.

When the movie begins, we see the protagonist prostrate on the ground, fervently praying the Jesus Prayer. The substance of this prayer becomes the encompassing theme of the movie. The Island is the Jesus Prayer.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner.

I know very little about Russian monasticism. I cannot tell you whether The Island accurately represents its spirit. Nor am I particularly sympathetic to Russian religious life. I have never read The Brothers Karamazov and am not tempted to add Laurus to my novels-I-must-read-before-I-die list. I do not secretly yearn to immerse myself in the ascetical life of Trinity Lavra. I was once told that I have the soul of a Russian poet, yet I have never been particularly drawn to Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, or Pushkin. (I did fall in love with Julie Christie when I watched Doctor Zhivago at the Glebe Theater in 1965; but so did every other 13 year-old boy back then.) My heart lies with the Elves in Rivendell, not in Holy Russia.

None of that matters.

What matters is that while watching The Island I was drawn into prayer.

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12 Responses to Holy Fool

  1. Mike H says:

    I’ve had a similar experience with 2 movies in particular over the past couple of years – “Tree of Life” and “Calvary”.

    Calvary (w/ Brandon Gleeson) portrays a week in the life of a Catholic priest in a small Irish town. The situations and personalities that he encounters are Extreme with a capital “E” (almost exaggerated for effect), but that “exaggeration” is what makes it so good and real. It’s actually tagged as a Drama/Comedy on IMDB. The “comedy” component (I’m very hesitant to use that descriptor at all) is without question “dark comedy” – loads of language, etc. Hard and uncomfortable to watch at times. Dark, but profound, inspirational, and hopeful.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I have Calvary saved on my DVR. I’ve been waiting for the right moment to watch it.

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    • Jonathan says:

      Calvary is on my list too. And Ostrov. I saw Tree of Life in Evanston IL and loved it. It put me in a prayerful state. But I have never heard so much booing and hissing in my life, or seen so many people walk out of a theater early. Weird.

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      • Mike H says:

        That’s strange. Booing. Were you at a local film festival or something?

        I live in the Chicago suburbs btw.

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        • Jonathan says:

          No, it was the big Century thing by the train tracks downtown. I think affluent, liberal Evanstonians just really resented having to watch something that openly invoked and took seriously the idea of grace, a supernatural dimension to reality, any sort of eschatological vision like you get at the end of the film.

          I just moved away from Chicago, but I was there for 11 years and ended up in Evanston a lot while my wife was doing her doctoral work at NU. The experience of all that anger in the theater will always be weird in my memory, it really was quite vitriolic, but I didn’t find it terribly surprising, unfortunately, on reflection.

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  2. Jonathan says:

    By the way, Father, just wanted to say that’s very interesting — and brilliantly put — about your preference for Rivendell over Trinity Lavra. I think I feel the same to some degree. Although I do love Russian literature. The Russians have contributed to the prose narrative tradition so importantly, and that contribution continues with Laurus. I’m talking about literary craft, though, not spirituality. I, too, don’t usually find that Russian spirituality makes sense to me, if I may put it that way. It doesn’t resonate as well as it might. Which is perhaps why I’m one of the tribe that prefers Tolstoy to Dostoevsky. I wonder if this is why I also don’t enjoy the cinema of Tarkovsky (except for Solaris) as much as I should. Do you know his films? I’ve watched Andrei Rublev three times and I just don’t get it. How this is possible and yet I can be moved profoundly by Tree of Life, which in its way is very Tarkovsky-like, I don’t understand (unless it has something to do with Jessica Chastain). Truly, there is no accounting for taste.

    But about Rivendell v. Trinity Lavra. . . I may have to quote you on that, if you don’t mind. That is an acute formulation. Anyway I have to think about it some more, it is highly suggestive. I mean, just the fact that you’ve placed a monastery of the so-called real world on the same plane with a fictional non-human city — really it is remarkable, and an idea that resonates with me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I guess it shows the mythopoeic cast of my mind. I honestly have not read many “realistic” novels since my undergraduate days.

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      • Jonathan says:

        I know what you mean. I’m not hugely interested in classical literary realism and I think that its historical moment is rapidly receding. Actually, no, it’s already defunct. But the masterworks of realism will always be important. Anyway, for me Tolstoy is all War and Peace. It’s a true epic, it contains the whole sweep of life and the profound reflection of a wise man when he was still a poet and not a prude. And I think it is the greatest celebration of family life in literature.

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  3. I cannot wait to see this. My daughter has her first class, learning Russian with a tutor today because she is beginning a post graduate degree researching 20th century Russian music soon. I think it will be a country that will play a growing part in our lives. Sometimes I am fascinated, and sometimes intimidated, by the way in which Russia always does everything in such a big way. Your description of the film seems to display this.

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  4. Karen says:

    Thanks for the review. Definitely something to add to my list . . .

    I once read an English professor who had become Orthodox who, if I am recalling correctly, wrote to the effect that Charles Dickens is to English culture what Dostoyevsky is to Russian and that Dickens presents a very Orthodox world view in his works. What do you think of Master Dickens? Too much realism? (I love his stories, but I’ve been more a reader of Jane Austen and of C.S. Lewis and Tolkein myself.)

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  5. Reblogged this on Wisdom from The Lord of the Rings and commented:
    Thanks to Father Aidan Kimel I came to know this remarkable film recently and I have watched it twice in recent weeks. Now I want everyone I know to see it too. Father Kimel has written an excellent review and includes a link to the film and I have reblogged both here. I particularly liked the phrase in his review that begins, “To his surprise, irritation and bewilderment, God makes him…” I will let you read the rest of the sentence and the rest of the review.
    That phrase made me ponder the question, What has God made me do over the years that I have not welcomed and yet has proved to be essential in revealing my True Self, that which God loves?
    I do hope that some of you will watch The Island and that you will let me know your response. I know that it will change me on repeated viewings over the years.

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