Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Sep 23, 2010 1:46 pm 
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(Also published on Cinescene.)

A triumph of acting and atmosphere

Xavier Beauvois' last film was a little cop story, a "policier," but it hit hard. This one, based on true events in Algiers in the 1990's, hits harder, though its impact is a mixture of intellectual and emotional. It poses a life and death ethical issue. When radical Islamists (الجماعة الإسلامية المسلّحة , the Armed Islamic Group, GIA) terrorize the Algerian countryside, eight French Cistercian monks have to decide whether to accept military protection and let the government evacuate them, or stay and continue to serve the terrorized locals they've always provided with necessary clothes, food, and medical treatment.

Criticisms of the film up front are: that it's an action movie about deciding not to do anything; that where it's going is never much in doubt; that at two hours, those two points considered, it's too long; and that it covers its protagonists with sainthood a little too easily. Some critics complain that the second prize (Grand Prix) at Cannes rewarded the monks rather than the film. But these are weak objections. Accepting almost certain death is hardly not doing anything. It's not so often these days that one gets to see such personal and deeply felt moral decisions being made. Decision-making is the highest form of action; all the rest is running around in circles or following instinct. When one observes how agonizing the decision is for several of the monks, the conclusion hardly seems foregone.

The film's two-hour running time is necessary to establish how complex and difficult the decision is; moreover, the events telescoped in the film actually took place over a period of four years. The GIA had actually ordered all foreigners to leave two and a half years before they come for the monks of Tibhirine. And the film is not inferior to the monks. Typically for him, Beauvois tells a story that is both complex and essentially simple, unified by a single issue. Eventually the monks' decision comes to seem inevitable but it's not easily arrived at for some any of them.

Some of the monks have big families and ordinary occupations they might return to. Others have no one and can imagine no other life, but are afraid and don't want to die. They all are here because it is where they were meant to be. They became Cistercians to live, not to die, however: how and who and what will they be serving by dying? And how then can they make a decision that is likely to mean their death? Of Gods and Men is a meditation, a harmonious blend of practical activity, singing prayer, and turbulent encounters with the locals and the Islamists. And all the while the monks are periodically meeting among themselves under their leader Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson) to decide what to do. (Christian insists from the start that they must remain, but it's not till much later that they all come around to this point ov view.) Beauvois' accomplishment is that he handles the sublimely monastic, humbly everyday, and terrifyingly violent moments with an equally authentic feel.

Brother Luc (the venerable and monumental Michael Lonsdale) treas villagers with salves and kisses. He is old and asthmatic, but he is seeing 150 patients a day now, because they are suffering from stress. Shielded as they are, the monks know the whole country is in turmoil. Anyway, early on the GIA leader Ali Fayattia (Farid Larbi) confronts Christian, demanding medical treatment for one of their wounded. Christian manages to put him off, quoting the Qur'an. Fayattia comes across as religious; he repeats back in Arabic the Qur'anic lines Christian has quoted in French, and he's respectful of the fact that, unbeknownst to him, it is Christmas.

In the past, and still in Hollywood, a story of this kind would never be depicted so authentically. Though Beauvois by intention isn't following events literally, the people, the language, and the locales look, sond, and feel right. The monk's knowledge of and respect for local custom and a fair smattering of Arabic are established. So is their naiveté. When their Peugeot station wagon breaks down on the road, a group of local women restart if for them; they haven't a clue. There are dozens of details establishing the monks' rootedness in the place and their interaction with the people.

But this doesn't answer the question: why are French Christian monks in this strictly Muslim country? Notably, Croatian workers get their throats cut. The monks have a more important status. Doing peaceful work in a place of conflict always seems crazy or impossible, whether the doers are religious or secular. This is a question the film doesn't answer. But by the end one comes to respect the monks on their own terms. A decision can't always be judged by its consequences. This is a remarkable film because is confronts issues and beliefs in real-world terms within the otherworldly milieu of monastic life. Music consists mostly of the a capella singing of verses by the eight monks in a little chapel; toward the end, when their decision has finally been made, there is a kind of celebration where Luc opens bottles of wine and turns on a radio playing Swan Lake, which takes on a remarkable sacramental air Tchaikovsky may never have imagined. This is one of a number of bold and original decisions by Beauvois who manages almost magically to do something new within the format of classical filmmaking. He has justifiable confidence in his actors, both very individual and very much an ensemble, whose every gesture seems special and human. Yes, this is serious stuff, and the eight monks are painted in saintly colors. Is their something wrong with dignifying human courage? Caroline Champetier's photography, beautiful throughout for its clarity of light, evokes the Last Supper, and the director, in a French pun at a Q&A, connected metteur en scène, film director, with La Cène, The Last Supper.

The monks refine their decision to the point of purity. But the situation wasn't simple. The villagers seem to love the monks, but authorities see them as as colonial remnants, protecting them only out of duty. A military officer has an unfriendly look. Recent findings show when taken hostage the monks may have died by military error rather then the hand of the as yet unidentified hostage takers.

Des hommes et des dieux, 122 minutes, in French and Algerian Arabic, was seen and reviewed as part of the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center 2010. It premiered at Cannes, where it received the Grand Prix, and opened September 8, 2010 in Paris, where it has received high praise from critics of all stripes.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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