Of Gods and Men: France's Snubbed Oscar Entry

Xavier Beauvois’s “Of Gods and Men” (“Des hommes et des dieux”), France’s entry for the Foreign Language Oscar, is a quiet, intriguing, and haunting meditation on values and conscience in crisis conditions, an intelligent film that accumulates tremendous power at it goes along.

It is truly scandalous that the Academy’s various committes for the Foreign  Language had omitted “Of God and Men” of the final five nominees, as this movie is not only one of the year’s best foreign films but one of the year’s best films.

World-premiering at the 2010 Cannes Film Fest, where it won the Jury Prize, “Of Gods and Men” will be released by Sony Classics in late February.
  
The film is based on the true story of the kidnapping and brutal execution of seven French monks in Algeria in 1996.A timely, relevant, and intelligent meditation on such “hot button” contemporary questions, such as the irreconcilable relationship between Christianity and Islam, the aptly titled feature is also a great work cinematically, splendidly acted, directed, scripted and photographed.
 
Beauvois depicts the lives of a group of eight brothers who live in a Cistercian monastery in the wild, parched, sun-drenched land of Algeria.  With sharp observational powers (and often sans dialogue), we learn of the monks’ lifestyle. With meticulous attention to the smallest detail, we observe their routine daily rituals of farming and praying, marked by communal meals and chants.
 
Needless to say theirs existence is highly spiritual, yet they are also pragmatic, living and working in harmony with the locals, providing medical care and supplies (which are scarce). They also take part in local Muslim customs. Indeed, one of the monks is as well versed in the Koran as he is with the Bible.
 
But there’s also harsher external reality. When a group of Croatian workers are murdered, the local mayor urges the brothers to close their doors and move away. Which leads to a major crisis of conscience among the eight men. The second and third reels depict a series of discussions and votes of who of the eight is willing to stay—or depart back to France.
 
When a fundamentalist militia group turns up one day, the choices they make become real, immediate—and fateful. It soon becomes apparent to the monks that their very lives are in danger.
 
How they resolve this crisis provides writer-director Beauvois with the center of his tale, and he handles his challenging task extremely intelligently and sensitively.   In one of the film’s emotional highlights, the broters’ collective devotion is expressed, when they join in the chant that’s beautifully played on the soundtrack, and the secular music makes their act all the more touching.
 
After the men decide to stay on, the share a meal and a glass of wine, while lsitening to Tchaikovsky’s grand music from “Swan Lake,” which plays on an old tape deck.
 
Rest assured that though dealing with belief systems, “Of Gods and Men” is not a simple or verbose tale of the endless theological conflict between Christian and Islamic ideas. The movie is more interested in the division between fundamentalists and humanists, its implications and meanings.
 
 
 
Overall, “Of Gods and Men” is a better, richer, more meaningful film than Fred Zinnemann’s 1966 Oscar-winning film, “A Man for All Seasons,” which also deals with issues of moral and spiritual conscience and its political implications.
 
Xavier Beauvois, who was born in Auchel, France, is a self-taught filmmaker. He has acted in many films before working as an assistant director to André Téchiné and Manoel de Oliveira. He has directed four features prior to “Of Gods and Men,” including Nord (1991), N’oublie pas que tu vas mourir (1995), Selon Matthieu (2000), and Le Petit Lieutenant (2005).
 
Spoiler Alert
 
In 1996, the kidnapping and murder of the seven French monks of Tibhirine was one of the culminating points of the violence and atrocities in Algeria resulting from the confrontation between the government and extremist terrorist groups that wanted to overthrow it.

 

The disappearance of the monks, caught in a vice between both sides, had a great and long-lasting effect on the governments, religious communities and international public opinion. The identity of the murderers and the exact circumstances of the monks’ deaths remain a mystery to this day.

 

The case was taken up by a French court in 2003. Certain documents were recently declassified. In the upcoming months, new revelations may finally bring the truth to light.

 

Cast:

 
 Lambert Wilson
Michael Lonsdale.
Olivier Rabourdin
Philippe Laudenbach
Jacques Herlin
 
Credits:
 
Produced by Etienne Comar, Frantz Richard
Cinematographer: Caroline Champetier
Editor: Marie-Julie Maille
Sound: Jean-Jacques Ferran, Eric Bonnard
Production Designer: Michel Barthélémy
 
 

 

 
  
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