2010 // France // Xavier Beauvois // March 29, 2011 // Theatrical Print (Landmark Plaza Frontenac Cinema)
It's a tricky thing, adapting real-world events fraught with moral, theological, and philosophical significance into a film which purports to share the same character. The burden of oblivious pretension and unprincipled exploitation has buckled the ambitions of countless films about Very Serious Matters, whose creators seem prone to an especially stubborn sort of artistic blinkeredness. In his Grand Prix-winning new film, Of Gods and Men, French writer-director Xavier Beauvois succeeds where many of his confreres have often failed, owing primarily to his disciplined and fitting stylistic choices.
Beauvois--whose other works are unfamiliar to me--uses a stripped-down approach to convey the tale of French Trappist monks in the Atlas Mountains of Algeria in 1996, who must decide whether to stay or leave their monastery when the nation's civil war comes knocking at their door. The director exhibits an admirable respect for his material's integrity. The monks are keenly aware of the momentous consequences of their choice on the villagers they serve; on the broader honor of their order; on their personal righteousness; and, most directly, on their own safety. Accordingly, Beauvois and co-writer Etienne Comar generally resist stifling their film with grave trimmings meant to double-underline the dire nature of the monks' predicament. The characters know exactly what they are facing, and we know it because the performers are intensely capable and the filmmakers regard them with rapt attentiveness.
Beauvois' film works carefully, establishing the pattern of the monks' lives, conveying the particulars of what it means to dedicate one's life wholly to Christ's teachings in a remote corner of the old French empire, surrounded by Muslim neighbors. The particulars, it turns out, are remarkably innocuous: the monks run a medical clinic for women and children, they listen to the concerns of the village leaders, they plant crops, they make honey, they scrub floors, they read the Bible, they pray. Baeuvois watches them in long shots as they chant together in communal worship, recalling Philip Gröning's masterful documentary, Into Great Silence. There is little music in the film, all of it diegetic. (The film's only real dramatic belly-flop involves an audio cassette recording of Swan Lake's thunderous crescendo. In a work that is otherwise so restrained, the scene in question comes across as comically heavy-handed.) Beavois doesn't use stirring string cues or beatific lighting to emphasize the gravity of his tale. Instead, he lingers on the naturalistic texture of the Atlas setting: glassy mountain lakes; herds of goats in the wooded hills; old cars stalled on dusty roads.
Gradually, the shadow of the civil war falls across the monastery, although the political and cultural context of the conflict remains obscure within the boundaries of the film. No one utters the words "canceled elections" or "Armed Islamic Group." It's clear, however, that the monks are fearful of the jihadist rebels and wary of the corrupt government, which still rumbles with anti-colonial sentiment. The monks only seem to trust their neighbors, who look at the thuggish jihadists and wonder despairingly and rhetorically, "Who are these people?" Eventually, it becomes apparent that the advancing rebels will either conscript the monks or kill them, and the brothers must therefore reach a consensus about whether this looming fate warrants any action beyond, well, reading and praying, I suppose.
The film is therefore a quite pointed first-order rumination on moral duty and martyrdom, one that is partly enmeshed with Catholic tradition but not wholly dependent on it for pathos. It's perhaps a bit dry to watch monks sitting around and debating the pros and cons of abandoning their home, or monks whispering anxious prayers to themselves in their dark cells. However, the film's events have the luster of graceful credibility, reinforced by an understated hand. One can envision that the monks would have had these conversations, and they would have taken the time to carefully consider the moral meaning of their choices. Many of the brothers are frightened or angry, confessing a secret wish to return home to the relative safety and comfort of life in France. French audiences were likely well aware of how the story concludes, and the film's American promotion does little to conceal the unhappy ending of the tale. Nonetheless, there is value in any tale told with such elegance, even one so thematically frank.