Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Of Gods and Men Movie Review: Who Knew the Monastic Life Could Make such Fascinating Cinema?

France has suffered an 18 year dry spell at the Oscars, last having won the Foreign Language Film award for Indochine. Their submission for this year, Of Gods and Men, could well be the one to break the bad luck streak. It’s already won the Grand Prix at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Here is a film of remarkably accomplished skill in storytelling, film technique and empathy.

It’s so refreshing to see a filmmaker who really understands how to use the medium of film effectively. Director Xavier Beauvois has obviously studied and internalized the masters who established film technique when the art form was still in its infancy. The first half is almost like a silent film. Dialogue is minimal. Everything is presented as image and we never have any question about who the characters are, what their relations are to one another or how they feel.

The story is based on the real events of eight French Trappist monks living in an Algerian monastery, seven of whom were kidnapped in 1996, presumably murdered by local guerillas during the civil war that had already been raging for several years. That they were killed is certain. What remains mysterious is the circumstances. Some evidence seems to suggest that the Algerian military may have ultimately been responsible.

But Beauvois’ film, co-scripted with Etienne Comar, is not really interested in the disappearance and subsequent murder. In fact, it’s hardly concerned with the Algerian politics that led to the region being so volatile. The mystery that drives Of Gods and Men is the decision of the monks to remain at the monastery despite escalating violence in the region and a genuine concern for their safety on the part of the military.

As such, there is very slow and deliberate pacing to the film. It takes the time to show us the fullness of the lives of both the monks and the villagers. The camera observes and regards the monks. Shots are often held, lingering for longer than traditional films have trained us to expect. This technique makes for an incredibly pensive experience. The lingering shots allow you the time to consider the feelings and the day-to-day of the monks.

They rarely talk to one another. Trappists don’t take vows of silence, but they do consider idle talk to be an impediment to servility. I don’t believe one of them exchanges a single word with another until after they are warned of impending dangers. From that moment they begin deliberating on their options and considering themselves with regard to their purpose and fate.

The monks do not live a secluded monastic life. They have real relationships with the local villagers. They come to Luc (Michael Lonsdale), the doctor, in droves. They invite the monks to their familial religious celebrations, one of which is shown nearly in its entirety and serves as a fascinating contrast with the staid prayer sessions of the monks and their pious Gregorian chant and white robes, and simple unembellished d├ęcor.

The first sense of conflict comes at about the midway point when Christian (Lambert Wilson, best known to American audiences as The Merovingian in The Matrix sequels) makes a kind of executive decision as head of the order to remain firmly planted where they are rather than flee for safety. Some of the other monks are understandably disturbed by the decision and the film’s first extended dialogue scene involves the men’s first vote on whether to stay or leave.

Their ultimate decision to stay can be traced not only to their devotion to the people who depend on them for support, medicinal and medical care more than anything else, but also their refusal to be cowed by politics. They are men of God above all else and if their calling is to be in a dangerous place then who are they to challenge God’s will. But here I am attempting to put into words what the film wisely avoids. The monks never spell out their motivations. They accept and they wait, much like the Caroline Champetier’s patient camera and Marie-Julie Maille’s deliberate editing.

And as if the film isn’t good enough through its first two acts, it then delivers one of the most remarkable and moving scenes I’ve seen in a long while. As trouble continues brewing around them and the occasional helicopter hovers ominously over their chapel, the monks gather round the table one night listening to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. They listen in silence, the music swelling and ebbing while the camera cuts from one to another, showing us their reactions to the music and the uncertainty of their fate. Some listen, some look at others, some are teary-eyed. As the music continues the camera cuts progressively closer and closer to each of the men until we can see only their eyes. It’s a striking sequence for its understanding of technique and its demonstration of a historical knowledge of the silent cinema and the theories of Eisenstein. It also provides the high point of the film and leaves you with a satisfied feeling knowing that these simple old men are content to go where fate will lead them.

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