of gods and men

by anderson
Dir: Xavier Beauvois
Running time: 2 hrs.
MPAA rating: PG-13
In French with English subtitles

Like Easter, “Of Gods and Men,” by the French director Xavier Beauvois, is based on a murder story – in this case, the abduction/beheading of seven Cistercian monks by Islamic extremists in mid-‘90s Algeria. And as if we haven’t already let the metaphorical cat out of a very insubstantial bag, it should be added that although Beavois is not in the allegory business, his parable is also a Passion Play of a very modern sort, one in which its each character has to crush the gnawing worm of his own mortality and doubt — and, in doing so, validate his faith. What we get, as a result, is one the more profoundly spiritual films of this year or any other.
Despite the prepositional mischief of its title (can anyone avoid thinking “Of Mice and Men”? Or, better still, “Of Human Bondage”?) “Of Gods and Men” is a serious, adult movie, and a violent one, and not all the mayhem arrives via the bloodletting of the Mujahadeen, or the counter-brutality of an Algerian military: Although this French-made Sony Pictures Classics release is set in a monastery among Cistercian-Trappists committed to the contemplative life, the battle each man wages for his soul and conscience … well, if one were looking for an intellectual “Rambo,” this would be it. The tension created here, not by the dramatization of physical peril as much as its spiritual counterpart, is palpable, and the soul’s equivalent of a car chase, replete with flaming wreckage.
They lead a rigorous existence, these monks: Located in an unnamed village near Tikrit — the landscape (shot in Morocco) occupies some middle ground between lush French countryside and scrubby desert — the Monastere de l’Atlas is a community center for its Muslim neighbors, a place for medical care from the aged Brother Luc (French film legend Michael Lonsdale) or advice from the intellectually inclined prior, Christian (Lambert Wilson). Like their fellow brothers, Luc and Christian are poster boys for personality types – Luc looks kindly and bearish, and is; likewise, Christian appears hawk-eyed, intellectual and slightly pinched (even his haircut screams “French intellectual”). The fretful Brother Christophe (Olivier Rabourdin) wears a worried, mournful look, even while tilting his watering can over the carpet of edible greens he cultivates; the bright-eyed, aged Brother Amedee (Jacques Herlin) is possessed of a constitutional twinkle; the haunted-looking Brother Paul (Jean-Marie Frin) has a past that is only hinted at, but which suggests that he, and perhaps others, would rather not have his calling questioned. At any rate, the allegiance that the casting shows toward surface appearances is significant, given the central crisis of the film, which is not only about life and death, but identity and truth.
Who are the gods and who are the men? As healers, teachers and abstainers from most worldly pleasures, the monastics of l’Atlas are looked upon by their Muslim neighbors as occupiers of some loftier plane; perhaps the brothers themselves have indulged such thoughts while going about their worldly business, tending the needs of their constituency, caring for each other, and participating in the ritual singing of psalms and hymns, the performances of which are used intermittently throughout the movie by director Beauvois. As he does with the singing scenes, the director imbues each aspect of the monastery’s daily life with nobility, purpose, and the suggestion of divine gravity.
But the sense of physical security that rises out of routine is quickly torn asunder, first by the slaughter of some immigrant workers at a nearby construction site, then by the Christmas Eve invasion of the monastery by fundamentalist militants, led by the ferocious Ali Fayattia (Farid Larbi). Fayattia, figuratively disarmed by Christian’s steadfast refusal of aid — and his recitations from the Quoran – decides to leaves, with begrudging respect in his wake. But no one thinks it’s for good. And with their garden of sanctuary having become a target for terrorists, each brother begins, in a sense, sweating blood.
This is the heart of the film. Congregated around their kitchen table, the brothers – some, at any rate– counter Christian’s argument that they have to stay. “We didn’t elect you to decide things on your own,” he is told; the group is rattled, some members want to flee. Christian’s leadership is questioned, as is each individual conscience: The brothers have devoted themselves to a mission, aspired to live in imitation of Christ, and the moment of truth has arrived: What does it mean if they leave? What will they mean, as men, if they leave? Each character experiences a different level of fear, but all share the same crisis of mortality. Everyone dies, they know. The question is how well.
Beauvois’ tactic, that of crawling inside a real event, inventing unknowable but plausible possibilities about it, and then using the fiction to illuminate greater truths, is certainly nothing new — even if few have used fact on behalf of such transcendent fiction. Oliver Stone tried it, many would say unsuccessfully, in “World Trade Center,” which embellished the experiences of trapped rescue workers; “Das Boot,” years ago, imagined the hothouse atmosphere of a German U-boat and the existential crises of its crew. The recent “127 Hours” borrows from a real event, to make larger statements. If most of these examples seem to be about men, they most definitely are. But while the filmmaking couldn’t be more different, “Of Gods and Men” also quite strongly suggests “Black Narcissus,” the 1947 film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, about conflicted nuns in a Himalayan convent.
In that film, the crisis was about sensuality; in “Of Gods and Men,” survival. But both films situate their viewer in a community where hardship and deprivation are personal choices, made out of spiritual commitment, and in which that commitment is intruded upon by a temporal world that can never be entirely shut out, despite all efforts. The alternately disturbing and comforting conclusion is that communities may come, and communities may go, but the fate of the soul is a personal responsibility, one from which here is no escape.
There may be audiences who are immune to the qualities found in “Of Gods and Men,” who cannot share the sense of dread, and uncertainty, that affect its characters. They will probably, then, also be immune to the joy Beauvois bestows on certain scenes, such as one in which Brother Luc, in a gesture of defiant optimism, opens two bottles of wine and puts on a tape of “Swan Lake” (the inherent fatality of which is unremarked upon, but poignant nonetheless). As the music plays, each man occupies the frame for a valedictory moment, one in which each of those memorable faces warms under the gaze of the camera, the blood seeming to rise to the surface of the skin, illuminating each with his own humanity. It’s cinema, of course, but vaguely miraculous just the same.

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