March 15, 2011


Of Gods and Men (or Des hommes et des dieux to give it its French title) is A Serious Film with Something To Say. You can feel the Weight of the Big Themes director Xavier Beauvois is looking to tackle. Things move at a measured pace, events taking their own time to unfold. It is also elegant and spare, with very little pretension. In short, not a film the Saturday night crown is destined to rush to. But it is worth your time.

The focus is on a group (collection? Order? Flock?) of French monks in a small Algerian community. The village is uniformly Muslim but there are no tensions here: the monks fully participate in village life, being invited to important ceremonies and the like. These are people of two different religions who, as religions do, have warred with one another over the centuries and continue to do so. But here, at this point and at this place, they all just get on with the job of living. The monks do not hold themselves above the poor; they offer assistance with what they can. And the villagers do not treat the monks as meddling outsiders. And Beauvois gives us time with the monks and the community, letting us soak it in; the landscape, the relationships, the life. Of course, things cannot continue like this. There is growing news of a gang of Muslim extremists; the village elders are just as disgusted as anyone by their actions. The crux comes when the extremists murder a Dutch road crew and are reported to be on their way. The monks must decide whether to stay and save themselves, or leave and abandon the village.

And that really is what the film is about, on a surface level at least. There is more than enough symbolism and thematic musing to fuel multiple viewings. And, I'm afraid, I'm not going to get too involved in that sort of musing: I feel like I really need to sit down with the film again, possibly with pen and paper, to really chew through everything going on under the surface. Some moments are a bit too on the nose, but for the large part proceedings are handled with grace and a sense of humanity. Although, I think Beauvois makes a mistake in all but cutting out the village during the second act - right when these monks are deciding to stay or not, it would help to see what they are, in part, staying for. But the monks themselves are delicately sketched out, with particular focus given to Lambert Wilson as Christian, the leader, and Michael Lonsdale as Luc, the old doctor. Where Christian is their thoughtful leader, given to meditation and study of the Koran, Luc is the heart of the group working long hours in their medical clinic, treating the people of the village.

The film could almost be set at any point in the last 20-30 years, yet could also be happening right now. There are no signposts or pop culture reminders of what is happening outside of this village and this situation, and I believe that that is entirely the point (or perhaps this is just my own damned ignorance - the film is based on a true story). In any case, the film manages to feel rather timeless, and this works entirely to it's advantage.

It may not be a film you "enjoy" per se, in that sense of "wee-explosions-action-sex-guns-BOOM-win-catharsis" of a blockbuster, but it will be one that engages your brain (the film, in fact, demands it) and should have you thinking about for a few days afterwards.

Of Gods and Men plays as part of the World Cinema Showcase.

No comments:

Post a Comment