If you are in Moscow and decide to see a popular spiritual film, expecting to see the likes of The Secret or What the Bleep Do We Know!?, you’re in for a surprise. Rather than being presented with the uniquely American “can-do” message that we can create our own reality and prosperity, you are more likely to be confronted with core existential questions about the meaning and purpose of life and the nature of God. After the fall of the Soviet regime and the violent trauma of shifting to capitalism, the Russian soul seems to be stirring, and new films are expressing a powerful revival of religious interest. The father-and-son drama The Return (2003), by Andrey Zvyagintsev, was one such popular film. But the most stunning of these films to date is Ostrov (The Island). Stunning in the starkness of its visual imagery as well as in its narrative power, this story of a rebellious Eastern Orthodox monk is being lauded as a masterpiece. Even more significantly, its success at the box office may mark the beginning of a sea change in Russian culture.
Ostrov’s story of repentance and faith in God hardly seems to be the stuff that blockbusters are made of. The main character is a monk named Anatoly who lives on the outskirts of an Orthodox monastery. With ecstatic forcefulness, he transmits an experience of the divine to all who come into contact with him—the self-assured monks of his monastery, simple people asking him for help, a woman “possessed” by neuroses. For Anatoly, there is only one solution to all the questions of life, one kind of healing for all human traumas: the direct experience of and devotion to God. His character is reminiscent of the staretz (the archetypal enlightened saint of orthodox Christianity) or the God-possessed fools in Dostoyevsky’s novels. These well-known motifs in orthodox mysticism seem to be one of the reasons for the movie’s success, touching the deep spiritual and cultural roots of the Russian psyche. But at the same time, Anatoly expresses a refreshing freedom from dogma and tradition, a lone spiritual warrior skillfully pulling people into his spell.
And Anatoly has cast his spell over a remarkable number of Russians. When the film was televised for the first time in January, half of all Russians watched it. Only President Putin’s New Year’s address attracted more viewers. The question is: Why?
The story of the film’s principal actor Pyotr Mamonov may offer some explanation. Back in the eighties and nineties, Mamonov was the lead singer in an avant garde Russian rock band that reached cult status. But these days, he lives as a religious hermit near Moscow, and apparently it took a great deal of effort to get him to commit to make the film. Ostrov director Pavel Lungin says: “In a certain sense, this is also a movie about Mamonov’s life. He transformed from being a rock star embroiled in scandals into a deeply religious man.” Lungin realizes that both Mamonov’s life and the life of the monk he plays are resonant for Russians today. “The times of perestroika are over and we need to think about things like eternity, sin, and conscience,” he observes. “These have disappeared from our lives in the rat race for success and money. But people can’t just live for material things alone.”
This fundamental change of direction in Mamonov’s life seems to reflect a broader trend in the lives of ordinary Russians. According to one study, a growing number of Russian teenagers and young adults believe in God—fifty-eight percent of those twenty-five and under. And the average age of all believers has dropped from sixty to forty-eight in the past decade and a half. In total, eighty-four percent of Russians consider themselves religious. Sociologist Detlef Pollack from Europa University in Frankfurt observes that this reemergence of spiritual longing in post-communist countries is not only strengthening traditional churches but also inspiring contemporary forms of spiritual practice and belief.
Perhaps what is most interesting about Ostrov and films of this kind is that they reveal a society poised between the ruin of Soviet times and an unknown future. Journalist Andrei Plachov writes that societies in Eastern Europe are increasingly “turning inward to resolve deeper existential problems.” This turning within is expressed in the way these films blend elements from traditional Eastern Orthodoxy, Far Eastern religion, and the Western postmodern spiritual marketplace. But whether a renewed interest in Eastern Orthodoxy will calcify into fundamentalism or help to provide Russia with a deeper moral ground from which to move forward is not yet clear. Russians are currently debating these issues with great passion. And no matter how the questions are resolved, it is evident that the spiritual side of Russia that seemed dormant for so long, first under the Soviet system and then under mafia-style capitalist opportunism, will play a growing role in the country’s future.