Friday, 17 December 2010

'Of Gods and Men' review:

In 1996 a small group of French Trappist monks were abducted from their Algerian monastery by Islamic terrorists. The monks were later found beheaded, but it remains to this day a mystery who actually killed them. The killings were claimed by The Armed Islamic Group of Algeria, but many suspect (based on French secret service documents) that it was in fact the Algerian army that killed the monks in error. Such a controversial near-contemporary incident, touching on inter-faith conflict and Islamic terrorism, may seem like an obvious set-up for a movie of our current political moment and indeed this horrific episode has now been made into a French language film directed by Xavier Beauvois entitled 'Of Gods and Men'.

Yet rather than focus on what you could (quite crassly) call "the action", Beauvois film takes a slower, more introspective and intellectual approach. He chooses not to dissect the incident itself, and the controversy surrounding the fatal final moments (stopping short of showing them altogether), but instead details the weeks leading up to that event as the monks discuss whether to stay in the monastery or go back to France in the face of the escalating tension in the region. It is a film of thoughtful pauses, haunting Gregorian chants and long, earnest conversations about ethics. 'Of Gods and Men' is not a film that states an overt ideological position, but instead it is about the nature (and perhaps the practicality) of ideology itself.

In it similar questions are raised as were earlier this year in Claire Denis' post-colonial drama 'White Material'. In that film a white family decides to stay on their African farm in the face of Zimbawbwe-style ethnic tension, placing themselves in clear danger. Both films ask us to contemplate where the line exists between stubbornness and bravery, between principle and stupidity. But whereas Denis' film seemed to be critical of its subjects (who were either willfully ignorant of the severity of their situation or else completely mad) in 'Of Gods and Men' the monks are portrayed sympathetically and their ultimately fatal decision to stay put is explored in a calmer, more rationalised manner. Though whether that makes the monks actions any less foolhardy is left to you to decide.

The seven monks are played brilliantly by an ensemble of terrific French character actors and the dynamic between the men is nuanced and rich. Each man has his own reasons for staying put and you sense that not all of them are grounded by their religious belief as much as by a mixture of peer pressure and loyalty to their fellow monks. One monk reveals that he will stay because he has nobody else outside of the monastery, having given up his old life to adopt the religious lifestyle. Other men (like Michael Lonsdale's affable doctor Luc) seem too frail or ill to move on. At least at first, it is really only the de facto leader of the group Christian (Lambert Wilson) who seems to be resigning himself to the idea of martyrdom born from an uncompromising sense of moral conviction.

Christian ponders the morality of every decision he makes. He refuses the offer of armed guards for the monastery so as not to align himself with the "corrupt" Algerian government (a decision he comes to without consulting the others) and telegraphs his obvious reluctance to shake the hand of a guerrilla leader even if it will buy the group some temporary assurance of protection from harm. When told at gunpoint to give up all the monastery's supplies and medicine, he refuses. "You have no choice" he is told. He replies calmly with the film's key line: "Yes I do." To what extent do we have choice? Is Christian blinded by a self-righteous sense of faith that will doom his religious brothers needlessly? Or is his adherence to a strict moral code something which assures their eternal salvation? Those are some of the questions posed by 'Of Gods and Men' and there are probably many more. Your answers to them may depend on your feelings on religion and the concept of moral absolutism.

Any good film is a film of ideas, even if those ideas are transmitted through seemingly disposable entertainment. But rarely are films so consciously about ideas whilst remaining so unpretentious. Usually a film's "hero" is motivated by a desire for material wealth, love, revenge, power or survival. Christian and his brothers desire none of these things and as a result this is a rare film where the goal is to determine the worth of principle. The fact that it does this so compellingly for just over two hours is nothing short of astounding. Especially as there is nothing in the way of light relief or humour. Another of this year's outstanding French films, 'Lourdes', was similarly slow and thorough in its exploration of faith and morality, but did so with an element of satire that is wholly absent here. Yet 'Of Gods and Men' assuredly manages to command our attention whilst being unrelentingly po-faced.

'Of Gods and Men' lives up to its billing as one of the year's strongest films, with its sombre, contemplative mood as captivating as it is a profoundly moving experience, reaching a creshendo as the monks' tearfully listen to Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" on the eve of their final trudge in the snow. As they disappear from view and into the mist, we are aware of their fate and you suspect that they are too. In a film that doesn't shy away from showing violence, in one startling and visceral instance, it is even more commendable that Xavier Beauvois chooses to leave the ultimate and most obvious question of "what happens next?" up to historians. In 'Of Gods and Men', what we think about what happens is more endlessly facinating than the event itself.

'Of Gods and Men' is rated '15' by the BBFC and was released in the UK on December 3rd.

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