Friday, June 24, 2011

New Release Review: Of Gods and Men (Xavier Beauvois, 2010)

As a result of its worldwide acclaim and success at the French Film Festival earlier in the year, Of Gods and Men has been playing steadily in selected Sydney cinemas for nearly a month now. Having been eager to see it following the universal praise, I finally managed to catch a screening. Directed by Xavier Beauvoix from a screenplay by Etienne Comar, Of Gods and Men premiered at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival where it won the Grand Prix, the second most prestigious award. In addition it was nominated for Best Film and Best Cinematography at the 23rd European Film Awards and received the 2010 National Board of Review Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

Of Gods and Men centres on the Monastery of Tibhirine, where nine Trappist monks live in harmony with the nearby villages of the largely Muslim population of Algeria, until seven of them were kidnapped and believed to have been assassinated by the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria in May 1996. The film focuses on the preceding chain of events, including the decay of government, expansion of extremist terrorism and the monks' confrontations with both the terrorists and the government authorities that resulted in their tragic deaths. 

The majority of the film is devoted to documenting their extraordinary courage when faced with the violent overthrow of the formerly peaceful situation between the local Christians and Muslims, and both their individual and collective deliberation on whether to remain in the high risk situation. They must choose whether to persist with their faith and confidence in God and to remain loyal to the townsfolk who have come to rely on their presence and influence, or to flee the country out of fear for their lives.

While it is certainly an injustice to the filmmakers to call the film 'slow', it's a patient and reserved film with a deliberate pace, unraveling the intriguing existence of these unique individuals. Focusing predominantly on the mundane routines of their lives we are allowed what feels like exclusive and privileged access to their private world. We observe them chanting, praying, partaking in their daily obligations around the monastery (sowing their own crops) and their various involvements with the local townsfolk. Luc (Michael Lonsdale) is a doctor who sees over 100 patients a day, while others produce and sell honey at the local markets and offer spiritual guidance.

Despite the majority of the population being Muslim, and crippled by poverty and illness, the monks share a largely peaceful and pleasant alliance. Inside the monastery and in the surrounding towns, the mise en scene is always kept simple and the frame uncluttered. The sharp, clean cinematography is effective in presenting exactly what it needs to. The shots of the sprawling surrounding Andes are strikingly captured and the slow panning and tracking of the camera endow these shots with the sense that we are privileged observers to this world.

The close-ups of the weary and concerned faces of these men reveal so much about their individual torment and effectively builds the audience's bond with each character as they struggle with their decision in their own way. The established hierarchy begins to be gradually overthrown when the brethren expresses displeasure at Christian's (Lambert Wilson) decision to reject military protection within the monastery. Later, one of the men questions God's existence and the reasons for their heroism. Another considers returning to France to live a different life. Some remain committed to being Martyrs and vow to stay, while others remain wary of making a hasty decision, until they allow themselves time to pray and deliberate. This indecision bring them even closer together. 

The casting is superb, but only Michael Lonsdale and Lambert Wilson are recognisable. Lonsdale is a veteran French actor with roles recently in Munich and Agora, while Lambert Wilson is probably best known for his small role in The Matrix Revolutions. I read that in preparation for their roles, the actors had a month of professional training in the Cistercian and Gregorian chants. Each actor also spent a week living as a monk at the Tamie Abbey, and utilised different approaches to their individual roles. 

The film's climax is preceded by a sequence where the monks sit down to a meal in an order resembling the last supper. They serve one another red wine to the accompanying sounds of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. The camera tracks around the table to see them collectively smiling and enjoying one another's company, then utilising the close up to show them drawn to tears at the thought of their approaching fates. Though it takes some patience to savour Of Gods and Men, it certainly is an extremely powerful film. 

My Rating: 4 Stars (B+)

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