Sunday, 4 March 2012

Of Gods And Men

After winning the Grand Prix at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, Of Gods And Men has now become France’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Film at the upcoming Oscars. Directed by Xavier Beauvois and based on the true story of seven French Trappist monks mysteriously beheaded in Algeria in 1996, the film focuses primarily on the events leading up to their deaths.

Set in rural North Africa, the movie is centred on a quiet monastery overlooking a quiet village. The eight monks who live within have developed a warm relationship with the villagers, dispensing advice and selling them their produce. More importantly, one of the monks, Luc (Michael Lonsdale), is a practicing doctor offering free out-patients treatment to the locals.

Their part in the peaceful community is threatened when Islamic Fundamentalists began to cause trouble in the region – culminating in the massacre of a group of Croatian construction workers. When the terrorists later seek medical attention at the monastery – following an unrelated incident – a moral dilemma over whether they should treat them occurs. This is the least of their problems, however, as it becomes increasingly apparent that their lives are in danger and their faith will be strongly tested…

Of Gods And Men is an understated, nuanced film. There are no set pieces, no dramatic speeches, no unnecessary flourishes. It opens simply, showing the quietly contemplative monks praying and singing. It’s an early indication of the measured simplicity of Beauvois’ approach to the subject matter. He efficiently establishes the warmth of the relationship between the monks and the villagers by following a young Algerian as he moves in and around the monastery, greeting the Frenchmen and chatting idly with them. It’s a clever scene, quickly introducing a rich cast of characters, a sense of their lifestyle and the community which exists between the Trappists and the Muslims.

Further illustrating the point, a wonderful tete-a-tete between Luc and a local girl makes explicit the respect in which the monks are held. She asks him what it feels like to be in love and his response indicates that he has had a substantial life prior to his being ordained as a monk. Luc’s evocative description of the emotions love engenders is utterly endearing and cleverly played – initially it seems that Luc’s love is for God. It’s only in the latter part of the conversation that it is made explicit that he has been in love a number of times prior to his finding God – his truest love. These hints at a previous life (and the fact that he is a doctor) are the only clues we are given to any of the monks’ back-stories.

Lonsdale is fabulous as the gruff Luc – Of Gods And Men is a film worth watching if only for the joy of seeing an ensemble cast of elderly men lighting up the screen with their very presence. The performances are uniformly excellent, suffused with warmth and sensitivity. Lived-in, wrinkled faces are well equipped to convey the quiet emotion contained within this film – a rueful smile, a slight wince or a crinkling of the eyes says as much as a thousand scripted words. Every single actor – regardless of the size of their role – imbues their character with an individuality created entirely through their own skill (even the sparse clothing of the monks offers no scope for individuality). A perfect example of this is Amédée (Jacques Herlin), the oldest of the monks, who probably has the least to say. Herlin‘s performance is pitch perfect – a beguiling mixture of tenderness, confusion and tolerance conveyed almost wordlessly through his expressive face.

As things become increasingly fraught, and the danger to the lives of the monks become increasingly tangible, their faith is tested and their resolve questioned. As they toy with the idea of leaving the monastery, they each have their own crises of confidence: how can there be a God in a world so cruel; do they belong in the wider world; can they abandon the village when it needs them most? Beauvois’ stance is to maintain a position of neutrality meaning that despite the enormous part which religion plays in the movie, enjoying it requires no religious faith on the behalf of the viewer. As the monks discuss their predicament and come to terms with their position, faith and religious belief are obviously at the head of the agenda. Yet the fact that they have such difficult decisions to make – even in the light of their religiousness – is not glossed over. One of them even invokes Pascal’s famous assertion that “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from a religious conviction.”

The scene for which the film will be most remembered sees the monks gathered around a table sharing red wine. To say too much might give away the denouement of the story, but it’s safe to say that it’s one of the most wonderful scenes committed to celluloid in recent years as music from Swan Lake plays over their silent thoughts. The soundtrack might lack subtlety, but the performances do not. As the camera sweeps around the table, it seems to capture the inner thoughts of each participant. There is joy, sadness and – above all – love visible on every face. It’s a scene drenched in emotion and an acting masterclass from all concerned. Truly magnificent stuff.

Of Gods And Men is a beautifully made film, eschewing the high drama contained in the source material in favour of quiet contemplation and a celebration of humanity which, although informed by religion, is not defined by it. The calm, quiet direction allows the marvellous individual performances room to take the limelight – and they are thoroughly deserving of it.

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