Saturday, March 5, 2011

Another World

Of Gods and Men
Directed by Xavier Beauvois

Starring Lambert Wilson, Michael Lonsdale

Of Gods and Men,
Xavier Beauvois’ impassioned and compelling drama, is based on a true story about French monks in a remote Algerian village who were kidnapped and murdered by terrorists in 1996.

Although Beauvois’ film has heart-pounding suspense, it is far less a didactic thriller than a candid and meditative character study of a group of men who have decided to live austerely at the behest of their fellow man: in this backward place, they help the poor, heal the sick and, most important, give much-needed hope to destitute people.

Indeed, much of the film’s leisurely two-hour running time is taken over by snapshots of the monks going about their everyday existence in an unnamed North African village, from planting harvesting on the monastery’s farmland and selling honey at the local bazaar to running a free health clinic and attending Muslim ceremonies to show their faces and, in the familiar parlance of wartime, win hearts and minds.

Even so, for all their good works, these moral men are no match for the ruthlessness and brutality of those fundamentalist Islamic groups that are beginning to flex their muscles.
First, several Croatian workers are slaughtered, then there’s talk about the killing of a young woman because she refused to conform to a conservative dress code.

The terrorist threat becomes palpably real after a local group and its charismatic leader come to the monastery for medicine for their own wounded; Brother Christian , the monks’ spiritual leader, outright refuses to give them medicine, telling them they have invaded a peaceful sanctuary on Christmas, the holiest day of the year, for which the terrorist head profusely apologizes. This unsettling leads to much soul-searching from the brothers, who have a difficult choice: should they abandon these needful people and their own calling or return to France and relative safety?

Although Beauvois individualizes the monks—the octet of superb actors includes only semi-familiar faces (Lambert Wilson as Christian and Michael Lonsdale as Luc, the doctor—he also demonstrates their spiritual and physical solidarity at Mass, at prayer, at meals and at increasingly urgent meetings held to discuss what they should or should not do about the terrorist threat.

Since the film is so restrained, the few facilely brilliant but overtly symbolic sequences stick out like sore thumbs. There’s a sequence of the men, praying and singing hymns and psalms in the chapel, being drowned out by an overhead army helicopter out of which ominously protrudes the barrel of a machine gun. In defiance, the men join hands and lock arms as they continue their joyful singing.

The film’s least effective moment, however, is at the monks’ last supper before their kidnapping (two of the men survive by hiding). It’s quite enough that the men go through the motions of the meal as if they all know they will be taken captive soon afterwards, but topping that is Brother Luc playing a cassette tape of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake during the dinner. As the overused music plays, Beauvois cuts from one man to another, registering their looks of resignation and sadness as each realizes that possible martyrdom might lie ahead.

Other than that misstep, Beauvois wisely refrains from heightening emotions on the soundtrack; aside from Swan Lake, the only music in the film is the brothers’ a cappella singing in the chapel. There’s a refreshing lack of overediting: a lot of single, long takes dominate Of Gods and Men, and the rare instances of quick cutting—from the monastery’s serenity to the roaring vehicles carrying the Croatians’ killers or the monks’ abductors—are infrequent and highly effective.

The final shot of a snowcapped landscape with a line of trudging men receding into the whiteness adroitly sums up the artfully understated cinematography of Caroline Champetier, and also serves as a précis of a film which, though depressing, is also spiritually exhilarating.

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