Film review: Of Gods and Men

Of Gods and Men
Why Not Productions, Armada Films

STARRING Lambert Wilson, Michael Lonsdale, Olivier Rabourdin, Jacques Herlin, Sabrina Ouazani, Goran Kostić, Philippe Laudenbach, Xavier Maly, Jean-Marie Frin, Loïc Pichon
WRITTEN BY Etienne Comar, Xavier Beauvois
PRODUCED BY Pascal Caucheteux, Etienne Comar
DIRECTED BY Xavier Beauvois

SHOT BY Caroline Champetier
EDITED BY Marie-Julie Mailee
DISTRIBUTED BY Mars Distribution

Screened 2011-03-07

Without verging into the complicated historical footnotes surrounding the quiet deaths of seven monks, I will only say that in 1996 the Algerian War was in full swing and fundamentalist terrorism was something less than a rarity. You’d hardly know it, however, if you were one of the story’s French monks, sequestered deep into the rural and almost wholly Muslim Algerian countryside. Now and then violence comes to the doorstep of the Tibhirine monastery, and after one such incident the monks begin to have a series of minimalistic (like everything else in the film) “final debates” about whether or not to stay or go. Go: avoid the violent men and live, abandon the wretched but decent countryfolk who don’t have much of anything beyond a few grounded spiritualists, and compromise one’s own ascetic desire. Stay: risk a high probability of danger or death. The central monastic figure is played by Lambert Wilson who I’m sorry to say is best remembered in America as The Merovingian in the damned Matrix sequels, even if he was something of a shining light amidst the flotsam. He was nominated for a Best Actor at the Césars (French Oscars), though the winner would go to his co-star Michael Lonsdale for Best Supporting – and him you may remember as the culinary French benefactor in 2005’s Munich (you probably don’t. He also, btw, would be the PERFECT actor to play Michel Simon in a biopic, should it ever occur… you heard it from me first…) Of Gods and Men also took Best Picture and Best Cinematography Césars, as well as the Grand Prix at Cannes 2010, second to Weerasethakul’s similarly spiritual Uncle Boonmee, which is a richer and more complex picture.

I suppose fans will liken Of Gods and Men to Bresson (as his name is dropped frequently for efforts at minimal austerity), but that would be a bit complementary. I didn’t so much mind the glacial pacing of A Man Escaped, but I did mind it here… The picture’s purpose is a vicarious experience of the monastic life, which Beauvois and co-writer Etienne expanded upon from the producer’s desire to tell the tale of those monks who were dispatched as a result of their fidelity to faith. Now I can see how this film would come off as very successful, very important, very moving – and I can only speak for myself when I say I got the message straight away and found the quiet hour in the middle to be quite plodding – in all honesty, the film feels much like a church service, and it helps a great deal if that’s what you’re expecting. For me, this would’ve made a poignant short film. But on with the compliments: I suppose Lonsdale’s charming, afflicted local doctor performance is award-worthy, though I wouldn’t call it a Red Beard, and Lambert is ever the successful stoic, even if he doesn’t exactly milk for pathos (which I daresay the role was asking for – and now that I think about it, would’ve snagged a César). The camerawork is, sure, austere and quite competant, and pretty and quiet and minimal as hell. All technical accomplishments are of a higher caliber. Near the end of the film we are treated to the only music we’ll hear when we’re not sitting on monastic chants, and it’s the same triumphant classical finale we’re treated to in Black Swan… which would be much less strange if the U.S. got this film when France did… as is I could not help but think of that film and, for better or worse, the momentum generated by the time this song played, and how much less energized I was at the moment. I digress. As “let’s die nicely” films go, this one probably ranks high (urgh, do I now have a make a list?). France loves it (loves it). It’s pretty… it’s quiet… Pretty + Quiet = Pretty Quiet. Yeah. That’s about right.

written by David Ashley