Of Gods and Men: Cannes Fest Grand Jury Prize

Of Gods and Men

By Patrick Z. McGavin

Cannes Film Fest 2010 (In Competition): Winner of Grand Jury Prize
Sony Pictures Classics acquisition
Fifteen years ago, French director Xavier Beauvois used the backdrop of the Balkans’ tragedy to make a powerful if strained film about violence, racial antagonism and cultural grievance in “Don’t Forget You’re Going to Die,” which premiered in the Cannes Film Fest.  In the interim, the talented Beauvois has developed a more refined style, both more open and adventurous and less confrontational and assaultive.
Four years after his breakthrough police procedural, “Le petit lieutenant,” Beauvois is back with the fascinating and timely fact-based drama “Of Gods and Men.”
The film captured the grand prix, or second prize, at the festival’s Sunday night awards program. Sony Pictures Classics announced during the festival that they had acquired the U.S. rights.
“Of Gods and Men,” a smart, intriguing study about social tolerance and political violence, provocatively poses the question of whether religious expression and faith mitigates the violence or somehow fuels it and provides a rationale. It’s also a deeply philosophical film, which asks strong and pertinent questions about the nature of man and his capacity for good and evil.
Beauvois wrote the script with Etiene Comar, and they based the story on the Tibhirine tragedy, the mesmerizing though complicated story about a group of Cistercian monks who disappeared in 1996 under never fully explained circumstances.
The director fictionalizes the story, but the architecture of the story remains firmly in place. The movie is set in North Africa, where the pious and exceptionally dedicated monks are fully integrated into the local population. Their spiritual mandate is one predicated on silence, prayer and group consultations, where matters that concern the brothers are talked about, argued and voted on.
The group’s leader, Christian (Lambert Wilson), is an intellectual and voracious reader. His knowledge of the Koran and sensitivity to religious differences makes him ideally suited to interact with the local village’s religious and social leaders.
Luc (Michael Lonsdale) is a doctor who administers valuable medical practice and even dispenses simple, straightforward advice about love to a young girl. The monastery is built on severity, and the ascetic and stripped down life of the monks promulgates an absence of worldly pleasures or physical comfort.
The other six monks are not as well individuated. Beauvois and his great cinematographer Caroline Champetier, who has worked for Jacques Rivette and Jean-Luc Godard, make up for that with a series of evocative and sharp portraits that focus on the weathered, craggy faces and beat down bodies. Other than Christian, the other men are older. (Even Luc complains about the physical deterioration of his body.)
Their world is shattered when they learn a band of heavily armed Islamic militants have killed a group of Croatian workers, violently cutting their throats and watching them bleed to death that is part of a fundamentalist campaign to unseat the unpopular and possibly corrupt government. The monks are offered military protection, but they turn it down. It occasions the first of several stark and soul searching debates between the men as they discuss the possibility of leaving the monastery.
In the most riveting sequence of the first half, the Islamic fighters turn up at the monastery and request medical aid and comfort. In an electric showdown, Christian and the militants’ leader (Farid Larbi) alternate quotations of the Koran, the latter in French, the former in Arabic. The moment produces a shared sense of respect, but it also underlines how tenuous is the position of the monks.
The tension ratchets up and produces desperation and profound worry on the point of view of the men balanced against the encroaching religious disorder swirling around them, like Christian’s meeting with the more moderate village leaders who also warn them to depart, alluding to a recent case of two women teachers being slaughtered for giving relationship advice to a group of Islamic teenagers.
“Of Gods and Men” is a deeply moral film, but it also makes the valid point of how closely intertwined each man is to the institution and practices of the monastery. They are likely to feel alienated and out of place wherever they turn. In a telling story by one of the brothers about his return home to France, he makes clear the order’s emphasis on charity, peace and giving inevitably make each brother feel tremendously out of place and time.
Working in widescreen, Beauvois has a fleet, telling visual style, either following Christian as he moves through the vast spaces of the mountain ranges that abut the monastery or in the most thrilling moment, traces the lines and shapes of the men’s faces, each one riveted to the powerful strains of “SwanLake.”
The film ends mysteriously and ambiguously in a fog shrouded haze. “Of Gods and Men” grants a divinity and worthiness to both sides. It makes you feel the sting of loss and failure.