April 21, 2011
Of Gods and Men (2011) ****1/2
Directed by Xavier Beauvois
Of Gods and Men (2011)- Beautiful, sad and sobering true story of devotion to religion at its best and worst. ****1/2 out of 5
There's a narration at the end of Of Gods and Men that betrays everything that works in almost every scene that precedes it. It discusses the beauty of Islam and how the terrorism that affected these real life monks who lived in Algeria in the early 1990s was a distortion of everything beautiful about one of the great religions of our world. We're left with an overreaching political statement about tolerance which sounds all-too-familiar and completely inorganic. Of Gods and Men is fundamentally about humble and good Catholic men who relied on their faith to deliver them through unimaginable trials, turning them into martyrs, not for the glory of this world but for the glory of the next world. Therefore, a simplistic blanket proclamation about Islam is not the way this story should have ended.
From the very beginning, it's clear that we're about to spend a great deal of time with men of intense prayer. The pacing is noticeably deliberate, allowing the viewer to become immersed in the asceticism guiding the daily schedule of the community. They pray, read in silence, eat in silence while listening to holy writings read out loud, work around the house, have community meetings and sleep. An older asthmatic monk named Brother Luc (Michael Lonsdale) tends the medical needs of the poor Muslims of the Algerian village. Brother Christophe (Olivier Rabourdin) cultivates the garden, while the superior of the community, Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson), works on his often overly academic sermons and spiritual reflections for his community. Brother Celestin (Philippe Laudenbach) drives the car and plans the music. He also takes a journey to Paris to seek council of the head of their order when the violence surrounding the area escalates.
Algeria is involved in a brutal civil war, and the monks must choose whether they are willing to risk almost certain death by staying put rather than fleeing. The monastery has been a sign of stability and hope for the villagers, so the brothers leaving would bring unqualified despair to the surrounding community to which the men have dedicated most of their lives. At first, disagreement over leaving divides the men, but as they spend their days reflecting on their decisions to give their lives completely to God's will, they grow together in a firm resolve to stay even as their eventual fate becomes almost certain.
The audience is asked to share in the dread and witness the violence along with the monks. Whenever we travel outside the seemingly safe walls of the peaceful monastery, we feel uneasy, yearning to turn our backs on the turmoil and desiring to return to scenes of meditative prayer and quiet contemplation. At one point, the president of Algeria calls Brother Christian to meet with him imploring that the brothers save themselves. He points out that the villagers want nothing more than to leave behind all of the violence and fear, but they can't because they have no money and nowhere to go. The monks, on the other hand, have a way out. The president seems to think that remaining equals voluntary suicide, a thought that entered my mind as a viewer, and it's clear that it weighs heavily on the minds of the men themselves.
Director Beauvois often keeps his camera still to add to the simplicity of the lives on screen. Very often, we're asked to interpret the often uneasy and conflicted thoughts of the monks simply by looking at their weather-worn faces in closeup. The actors in the film, especially Lambert Wilson as the head of the monks, know the rule of acting for when the camera is zoomed in on one's face--don't act at all. Their eyes, body language and facial expressions give audiences all they need without any reliance on superfluous histrionics.
As someone that has spent some time around Catholic clergymen and religious orders (though admittedly not with a missionary order in Africa during a war), the way in which this unique, often misunderstood, lifestyle is portrayed always feels very genuine. There is a push and pull between naive idealism and secular cynicism at play, but for these men to have given as much of their lives as they already have to doing God's often difficult work, they need to be fundamentally secure in their faith and content with a life of work and prayer. Beauvois and the actors could easy have painted with broad strokes based on presumptions of Catholic monastic living, but instead, they perhaps offer up the most authentic portrait of religious life in film history.
Of Gods and Men is a great movie, and it could have been an unqualified masterpiece had it not become melodramatic towards the end. Right before the devastatingly sad climax, the monks sit around a dinner table and play the music of Swan Lake while they all unsuccessfully hold back tears as the camera zooms in on the face of each man. I'm not kidding when I say that I was reminded of the operatic ambitions of a film like Black Swan during this sequence, and I think it's an understatement to say that Of Gods and Men and Black Swan really shouldn't have scenes so closely paralleling each other. Ending a film satisfactorily is not easy, especially with an unconventional true story like this one. Beauvois and company sadly didn't rise to the challenge.
Overall, however, Of Gods and Men is refreshingly spiritual in a film world that's almost giddy in its secularism and anti-Catholicism. Most films that specifically attempt to cater to Christian audiences are embarrassingly bad. This movie, which showcases religion so strongly, has no religious agenda whatsoever. Yet, it respects it deeply. I think of Of Gods and Men as a much needed alternative to a myopic film like Ingmar Bergman's Winter's Light, which betrays the existential crises of its priest character by presenting an interpretation of Catholic ritual unlike any that has ever been performed. Of Gods and Men not only perfectly captures the individual struggles of sacrifices stemming from a life built on a foundation of faith, but it respects its characters and its audience enough to give credence to the power and importance of ritual and prayer in these men's lives. This movie believes in these men as much as these men believed in their vocation, and viewers are all the better because of it.