Small Things, Great Hopes


On the surface it was not a world-shaking event. A friend of the parish loaned me a DVD last week. The DVD was a Russian DVD – with English subtitles. Again, not a world-shaking event. Thus, let me take a few minutes to explain why I felt the earth move.

The movie in question is The Island, or Ostrov, to call it by its Russian name. It has won a number of awards, including special recognition by the Patriarch of Moscow (all of which makes me think I’m the last person in the world to have seen this film).

The movie’s plot is fairly straightforward – if you understand Orthodox spirituality. It has much to say (though with few words) about forgiveness and repentance. I need say no more than that for my purposes in this post.

What is earth-moving for me, is that this is a marvelous Orthodox film produced by a nation that is finding its way back to Orthodoxy (in fits and starts). And that, to me, is earth-moving

First, this perfectly Orthodox film could not have been made in America, because the American film industry would have never understood or let be such a straight-forward script. The movie has elements of miracles (all of which are understated in typical Orthodox fashion). It is permeated by the Jesus Prayer, constant repentance, and a healthy dose of the phenomenon of a yurodivoi (holy fool). I have read tales that are not unlike this film – but I had never seen a film that was remotely like such tales.

And with that, the earth moves for me.

When I was in college in the early 1970’s, my circle of Christian friends were fairly well-read. There was much discussion about theology, culture and related issues. When Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s book, From Under the Rubble, appeared, Solzhenitsyn was revealed to be a devout Orthodox believer. He had already been revealed as an unmitigated hero (among Americans) during a time when America was ceasing to believe that there were such things as heroes (you’d have to have been there to remember). At the time, reading his work was one of the most hopeful experiences I had ever had in my life.

I recall a Roman Catholic friend bringing up the subject of the “conversion of Russia” during one evening’s bull session. It was all tied up with Our Lady of Fatima and the prophecies of that early 20th century Roman Catholic event. I was not particularly concerned then (or now) with special revelations of Roman Catholic mystics. But the idea, not of the “conversion of Russia,” but simply of an Orthodox Russia was staggering for me. I can recall thinking about the meaning of a return to center stage of one of the most profound (why be weak – the most profound) forms of Christianity ever known and what it might mean in my own lifetime. These were the musings of a 20 year old in college bull sessions.

When, in 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, I felt for the first time rumblings of the visions of those earlier years. As the years have passed and the Church has gained greater freedom – not only have I become Orthodox – but my musings that an Orthodox culture might be on the rebound are stronger than ever.

Then comes this movie. I do not have to discuss its plot. But I do have to say that it is an event of extreme importance that such a film has been made. Into the cultural conversation of the modern, or post-modern world, Orthodoxy has risen with beauty and an articulateness I could heretofore only dream about. If it is the beginning of more such movies, then the Orthodox faith is receiving very important images and references with which to carry on its conversation.

I encourage you to see the film. You’ll have to buy it, or rent it (should your local movie store ever have it). If you’re someone who lives near my parish, then you’ll hear about an evening not to far from now when we’ll have “movie night” just to watch it together.

If I am the last person to have heard about this film, then I can’t believe no one else has been writing about it.

I can only end this post with a quote from a Russian review of the film. I found the review and did the only thing I could to read it: I plugged it into Babel Fish (one of the most hilarious experiences of language known to the art of translation).

The admonition –

General sensation: film good, unambiguously stands it to look.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



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45 responses to “Small Things, Great Hopes”

  1. Nancy Avatar

    Actually, you can’t be the last person to hear about it because I am! Will have to track down a copy. Thanks for the rec.

  2. Ronda Wintheiser Avatar
    Ronda Wintheiser

    I just ordered “Ostrov” off of Amazon before I’d even finished reading your post. (I’m on a roll here today… ) I read FROM UNDER THE RUBBLE just a few months ago, so I’m even farther behind than you are… But anyway, I have been thinking about how to connect with some of the people in our small mission parish that I have offended; they happen to be Russian… : )) and Fr. Nathan also speaks some Russian, so I’m sure he will want to borrow it, or maybe we’ll have a movie night sometime soon here at Holy Myrrhbearers… We will all unambiguously stand it to look… : ))

  3. Stephen Avatar

    Never heard of it, unless it is the movie about monasticism? Like a day in the life kind of thing? Anyways, sounds interesting. Thanks for the heads up.

  4. NewTrollObserver Avatar


    The movie on monasticism is about a Carthusian monastery in the French Alps: “Into Great Silence”.

  5. Coroebus Avatar

    Thanks for the review, Father. Very stirring. I’ve just ordered it too from Amazon — thirty bucks, ouch!

  6. Stephen Avatar


    “Into Great Silence” – yes, that was the film I was thinking of. Thanks.

  7. Jamey Bennett Avatar

    Father Stephen,
    I’ve written an email to you of a more personal nature, but I can’t find your email address. Would you email me at email hidden; JavaScript is required so I can send it to you. I have some questions to ask you. I’m not scary and I’m not selling anything! 🙂 – Jamey

  8. Mark A Hershberger Avatar

    I’d love to see this, but it looks like Blockbuster, nor my Library have heard of it.

    I’ll have to buy it.

    This comment on the Amazon page is interesting:

    There is a certain point that producer was trying to make and those points were remorse, hope and humility so this work is not about religion and it’s not even about faith, and monastery used as a contrast background to amplify those points.

  9. fatherstephen Avatar


    On the Amazon comment: perhaps someone has inside information on the producer’s intention. If so – then he accidentally made a profoundly Orthodox movie by mistake. What this person described as remorse, I would describe as the common Orthodox approach to repentance (that it should be continual). But for someone to say it’s not about religion seems absurd. The Patriarch of Moscow was of a decidedly different opinion (he gave the film an award). I trust his judgment. On the other hand, I think it’s quite possible for a person, unfamiliar with the Orthodox faith, to reach an incorrect conclusion about what they are seeing – not recognizing the tradition, etc.

  10. rusmeister Avatar

    I saw the film in Russian when it came out in November. An outstanding film, and definitely too highbrow for Blockbuster!

    The director and stars knew exactly what they were doing. Don’t pay attention to blather from people who don’t know what they are talking about. Just get the film and share it around (maybe split cost with someone? – it’s definitely worth half a dozen $10 videos). It won’t see serious distribution in the US.

    From an Orthodox American living in Russia… 🙂

  11. Steve J. Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I ordered this movie a couple of months ago, and I loved it. I also had to purchase a cheap DVD player that would play the PAL format. We plan to have a movie night for our mission to watch it.

  12. fatherstephen Avatar

    Apparently it can be ordered not in the PAL format. I had no problems with the copy that was loaned to me.

  13. Steve Avatar

    Aww, man. I thought I’d made a good clean joke. 🙂

  14. EYTYXOΣ Avatar

    I’ve been waiting for it to come out in NTSC. For those who can’t wait, here is an excerpt:

    Click on View Trailer

    There are trailers and things here:

    official site

    The 15-minute selection of 3(?) excerpts that used to be on the 2006 Toronto Film Festival site no longer is available. It was awesome!

  15. Fatherstephen Avatar


    Sorry, I didn’t understand the joke so I didn’t post it. I’m a little thick sometimes.

  16. Dean A. Einerson Avatar
    Dean A. Einerson

    It seems that Orthodox DVD’s may or may not be playable on US DVD players and televisions.

    I recently ordered a DVD of the life of Saint Nikolai Velimirovich from an American publisher, and even though it was a ‘region free’ DVD, it was not in the NTSC format for Amerfican TV.

    There are a number of ‘region free, code free’ DVD players that are fairly inexpensive. Googling ‘region free, code free’ will bring up plenty of suppliers. Just make sure that the one you order will translate TV formats as well.

    They are particularly useful for those of us who do not have the patience to wait for the US release of some films.

    Fr. Dean A. Einerson
    Rhinelander, WI

  17. EYTYXOΣ Avatar

    Can PAL DVDs be played in a PC DVD drive and/or is there appropriate cheap software that makes it possible to do so? If so, does such software give one the option to slow down the PAL speed a bit, if necessary? (I hear that the faster speed of PAL slightly and sometimes perceptibly raises the voice pitch when played back on an NTSC system with a PAL/NTSC DVD player.)

  18. fatherstephen Avatar


    I’m not sure about all the format stuff

  19. Angela123 Avatar


    You should be able to view a PAL DVD on your computer, and WinDVD (unsure of which version) is suppose to have something called PAL TruSpeed that will fix the audio with a slight decrease in video quality. If you do not have WinDVD on your computer, I would see if you can even notice the higher pitch. According to info in Wiki, “Depending on the sound system in use, it also increases the pitch of the soundtrack by 70.67 cent — 2/3 of a semitone, which only the minority of people with absolute pitch will notice.”

    For less than $100 you can buy a region free DVD player that plays both NTSC and PAL DVDs.

    I think I found the same movie on Netflix with a different cover.
    However, the release date is unknown. So maybe an NTSC Region 1 version will be available soon.

  20. mrh Avatar

    I definitely would not trust the statement. Consider, for perspective, that on the bonus materials for the longer Fellowship of the Ring movie DVD, a commentator (and supposed expert) discusses “Tolkien’s worldview” at length without mentioning Tolkien’s Catholicism, and instead states specifically that Tolkien’s worldview is “pagan”.

    Christianity makes a lot of people very uncomfortable and a lot of people have a very hard time acknowledging its influence on anything they like.

  21. Jack Avatar

    I have a friend who would like to own a copy but can’t find one. Any ideas?

    P.S. I thought “PAL” format was the joke, as in “my pal made me an illegal copy of it.”

  22. Meg Avatar

    Jack: No, PAL is the European formatting code. American DVD players won’t play it — ours require NTSC formatting (described by one Orthodox priest I know as “Never The Same Color”).

    Father Steven, you’re not the last person to have seen this film. I bought it in February, before I knew about all that formatting stuff, so I’ve been sitting on a PAL copy since February — finally got sick and tired of hearing all about What a Great Flick this is, and bought a *second* copy in NTSC format. The holdup now is waiting till my husband goes back to work (he’s been on extended sick leave all month) so I can enjoy something Orthodox. Sigh.

    Somewhere or other, I read that the star, Pyotr Mamonov, was a Soviet rock star who converted to Orthodoxy in the 1990s and now makes recordings of rock music with Orthodox themes. The same priest who made the NTSC crack suggested going out and buying a DVD player that could handle PAL format because, he said, he can only foresee more and more excellent-quality Orthodox films coming out of Russia. YUM!!

  23. Eric Avatar

    Ecumenical News International also ran a good article about it.

    1 February 2007 | 07-0090 |

    Feature film about Orthodox monk sweeps Russian film awards

    Sophia Kishkovsky
    Moscow (ENI). A feature film about repentance – as embodied by a Russian Orthodox monk tormented by his wartime past – has swept top prizes at Russia’s main film awards ceremony. “Ostrov,” or “Island,” took six Zolotoi Oryol, or Golden Eagle awards, including best film, director and actor at a ceremony on 27 January.

    The film stars Pyotr Mamonov, a Soviet-era underground rock star who has become a devout Orthodox believer and now lives in an isolated village. It was directed by Pavel Lungin, previously most famous for “Taxi Blues”, a perestroika-era film also starring Mamonov, and “Tycoon: A New Russian,” a fictionalised take on the rise of Boris Berezovsky, a controversial magnate now living in British exile.

    In his acceptance speech, compared by some Russian media to a sermon, Mamonov condemned his own popularity as idolatry and called on Russian women to stop having abortions.

    Structured like a parable, “Ostrov” tells the tale of Father Anatoly, a fictional monk who for decades seeks God’s forgiveness for shooting a fellow soldier at the Nazis’ behest during the Second World War to save his own life. The film is set in the 1970s in a remote northern island monastery, a timeframe for which some have taken the film to task since the church was then still repressed by the State.

    Patriarch Alexei II, and other senior clerics, praised “Ostrov” for its profound depiction of faith and monastic life. Addressing a church conference on 29 January, the Patriarch called “Ostrov” a “vivid example of an effort to take a Christian approach to culture”.

    “Ostrov”, which was the closing film at the 2006 Venice Film Festival, was also a top box office draw in Russia’s state-of-the-art new Dolby-outfitted multiplexes after its November release, playing alongside Hollywood blockbusters. Its television broadcast on 7 January, the Russian Christmas, drew ratings during the extended holiday season, second only to President Vladimir Putin’s New Year’s Eve address.

    Lungin has said of his film: “We tried to convey in it, a sense that there is a God, that we are not alone on this earth.”

    ENI featured articles are taken from the full ENI Daily News Service. Subscribe online to the Daily News Service and receive around 1000 full-text articles a year. ENI featured articles may be re-printed, re-posted, re-produced or placed on Web sites if ENI is noted as the source and there is a link to the ENI Web site

    © 1994 – 2007 Ecumenical News International.

    Ecumenical News International, PO Box 2100
    CH – 1211 Geneva 2, Switzerland
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  24. Visibilium Avatar

    Thanks for the review.

  25. Jamey Bennett Avatar

    I put the movie on my netflix waiting list. Not available yet through netflix, but the appetite has been sufficiently “whetted”.

  26. maximus daniel greeson Avatar

    I watched this film today @ the Hermitage of the Holy Cross Monastery in WV. Hieromonk Seraphim suggested it to me after we had discussed “Into Great Silence”. He and I both agree that “Into Great Silence” is not Christocentric enough. The Island is most definitely a very spot on depiction of Orthodox tradition, I was quite pleased and delighted to have watched it! Some of the monks there (Fr. Andrew and Fr. Panteleimon) had been to Russia the week before the the re-unification of ROCOR and the Mosow Patriarchate, and they said that there were signs and advertisements up everywhere in Russia for the movie. Thank God!

  27. fatherstephen Avatar

    I can’t wait until my private copy arrives. I’m glad that the monks at Holy Cross had an opportunity to see it. I agree that this is a remarkable film, accurate in its presentation of the tradition, and just a plain, well-made film. The longer I think about certain aspects of it, the more impressed I become. Again, I have hopes that we will begin to see yet more of such offerings.

    I’m also glad to hear of the monks travels to Russia. I hope to get up that way this summer and would love to hear their impressions. I have not yet been to Holy Cross but look forward to my first opportunity.

  28. maximus daniel greeson Avatar

    I am sure they would be more than glad to have you come and visit. All of the monks are a true joy to pray with. Fr. Panteleimon spent most of his time at Optina and has some great stories to tell. Fr. Andrew was at the signing in Moscow. I am planning on going back before school begins for me, so sometime in August God willing. Maybe we will be there at the same time? It would give me more time than to just say hello as I did last November in DC in the basement of St. Nicholas Cathedral!

  29. Constantine Avatar

    Hello Father Stephen at al.

    I have the same hopes for Orthodoxy and our popular culture.

    The way I see it, (and please forgive me ahead of time if I will seem to be babbling) is that Orthodox Christianity has been in captivity around the world until just recently. Motion picture technology is only about 100 years old and during these last 100 or so years, America has been making Protestantized movies because of our demographics, and Russia, which had a great literary culture, (and could have had a great film culture), was shut down as far as the arts go.

    Everything that God touches reflects His beauty. True Orthodox Christianity has baptised cultures around the world. All of the arts that spring from worship are far superior in beauty because the creators are closer to the Well, as we see in iconography, music, poetry, and architecture. When devout Orthodox Christians begin to make movies, the beauty reflected in these movies will be awesome (in the truest sense of that word).

    The Island (Ostrov) is just the beginning, and a good example of what is to come. (In my humble opinion). The Icons from Sinai show at the Getty museum, I was told, was “by far” the most popular show they ever held there. Hollywood will take notice. We have 2000 years of lives of Saints, which any one of them is worthy of a film. Who isn’t tired of the same recycled Hollywood cr#p?

    And while I’m on the subject, who isn’t tired of every time The History Channel or CNN needs a religion expert, its never an Orthodox Bishop or Priest, but some megachurch “pastor”, or Cardinal something or other, or Rabbi so and so. WE ARE THE EXPERTS for Heavens sake!

    Ok, so my babble turned into a rant. ICXC

  30. Constantine Avatar

    thats… ICXC NIKA

  31. Maiden Avatar

    Thanks for the review. I ordered a copy after reading it, and the film arrived yesterday. Watched it last night. Incredible!!

  32. Jason Avatar

    My wife and I saw the film at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, and we enjoyed it very much. Here’s a review I wrote…

  33. Fatherstephen Avatar

    Thanks for the review, Jason. I’ve gotten my copy and have continued to watch this little gem, appreciating levels of symbolism in it that compliment the storyline as well. Thus it occasionally has an iconic quality – quite fitting.

  34. […] have been viewing the movie, Ostrov, which I reviewed here, simply because watching it feeds me where watching something else would not. I think I have been […]

  35. Emily Avatar

    This film’s Christian message is not limited to my Orthodox brothers and sisters. As a devout Christian, who has spent many years in Russia, I just watched Ostrov this week in Russian and rejoiced in the how the Holy Spirit spoke through this film. How often do we carry with us the sins which Jesus took upon himself, and yet God uses us despite ourselves. To him be all glory, honor, and praise!

    Russia is very much an amoral, decadent, and envious place. Pornography flood advertisements that any child can see. Alcoholism is a national pastime. Adultery and devious behavior is acceptable. Destructive envy prevents prosperity. Yet, in the midst of this comes a film that speaks directly to the present sins, calling Russians back to the Cross and to the sanctifying work of the Resurrection. It has since been lost in the noise of many other Russian and Western films glorifying Satan and his ways. Yet, may God continue to use it on DVD to bring Russians back to Christ.

    Unwittingly, Ostrov also brings it’s non-Russian viewers to the same place — for Christians, affirming our deepest desire to honor God with our lives.
    I only wish Christian filmmakers here could have the same freedom (how ironic!) that these did in this film. Maybe “Bella” will help open the way.

    Tonight, I am going to simultaneously translate the film for my friends, all from different Christians denominations, but all who seek the glory of God in the midst of our sinfulness.

    Blessings to you, dear brothers and sisters in Christ!

  36. flod logic Avatar
    flod logic

    If anyone is looking for an NTSC version, I was able to find a region-free NTSC version on ebay for $10. Definitely one of the best movies I’ve seen!

  37. Serge Vostokoff Avatar
    Serge Vostokoff

    Had a great time reading this page. Christ be with us during the coming Great Lent.

  38. Helen Avatar

    Apparently the main character was so touched during the filming of the movie by Orthodox spirituality that he himself has now joined an Orthodox monastic skete!

  39. Isaac Avatar

    On Netflix, it is available to watch instantly over the internet.

    I have watched it twice in the past week. This film is a great encouragement during the lenten season. I recommend it highly.

  40. Joanna Avatar

    I was interested in getting a copy of the DVD. I clicked on View The Trailer. I was excited to learn that I had viewed the DVD at least twice in my own home, but it was called St. Anatoly. Perhaps it was a pirated copy, but it was truly one of the most moving films I have ever watched.

  41. Bob Glassmeyer Avatar
    Bob Glassmeyer

    Dear Father,

    Okay! I cannot wait to see this movie. A dear friend of mine hipped me to it today, and I’ll dig all I have to in order to find it.

    I truly love your words about this movie! Thank you for sharing it!

  42. St. Mark of Arethusa Avatar

    What a Movie! It was such a humble, funny, sad, pious, convicting, real movie!
    This is a must have for your church library, home library and city library (in fact . . . . that’s where I found it – at our city library!)

    mark – a parishioner of ST. JOHN the WONDERWORKER CHURCH in Eugene, Oregon @

  43. fr.williamjohnclark Avatar

    Dear Father, Christ is with us, and always will be. You dear Father were not the last to find out , I claim that fault.A former Reader in my previous parish sent me a copy early this year March 2008. As of now I have been AWED by this film, it has inspired me to increase my Repentance and to pick up my saying the JESUS PRAYER. All Orthodox should view this wonderful movie, praise GOD, and thank you dear Father for your posting, Love in Christ Jesus FR. BILL CLARK Roea (oca)

  44. Tina McCluskie Avatar
    Tina McCluskie

    I would like to have something sent to me Please on true repentance,& more about being a friend of God. And where could I find this movie? God Bless, Tina

  45. Aaron Haney Avatar

    I am very late to this conversation, but that’s what happens when you’re new to this blog and click randomly in the archives :^)

    I watched this movie awhile back with my wife after our 3 year old son had gone to bed. As the movie unfolded it seemed to be creating a space of some sort in my heart that is hard to explain. When it was over and my wife had left the room I simply sat in front of the TV as the Main Menu part kept cycling through the images with that hauntingly beautiful music playing. I didn’t want to move or do anything to interrupt the moment. It was a feeling of peace and timelessness that left my heart aching.

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