OF GODS & MEN (2010) FILM REVIEW
By Peter ValentyneWinner of the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010, director Xavier Beauvois’s film Of Gods and Men is based on the true story of a group of Cistercian monks who lived a monastic life of prayer and service in Algeria from 1993 until 1996, when they were kidnapped and then killed by radical Islamic insurgents.
The film is cast with a rather reverential eye for the saintly faces of the elder actors, even casting Lambert Wilson (of Matrix fame) as Brother Christophe, the young leader who appears slightly out of his depth both as character and actor, as many of the decision-making responsibilities rest on his sensitive shoulders. Though Christophe elects to hear each monk out as to whether to stay or flee, in the end he settles the final choice by a vote in which the monks become easily unified, although there is never any real doubt that they will come to the logical Christian conclusion and stay. But again the film strives to show the tension between collective faith and personal frailty. Soon after the vote, during an invasion of their inner sanctum, we see two of the brothers hiding under a bed like frightened children.
I found myself hanging on every brief detail as each monk one by one comes around to choosing to remain where he is. Inner conflict trumps outer conflict with a tremulous grace. We see their predicament and the director’s desire to highlight their inner conflict. I only wished for more focus on the individual personalities, as the change of mind they undergo feels abrupt and under-dramatized. How do these characters internally change beyond struggling not to weaken in the face of death? Offsetting this somewhat are some lovely passages of Gregorian chant that prove invaluable to both the characters and our own need for inspiration.
The emotional climax of the film is a sequence in which the monks gather for what feels overtly like a last supper. As the camera pans their faces in close up (each beatific face lit to painterly perfection) they share a glass of wine while listening to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and gradually dissolve into weeping. As in much of this earnest film, the intent is noble, but the obvious symbolism undermines the intended effect. It is difficult to portray characters as noble if you work this hard to underline their nobility. This sequence is so reverential and carefully choreographed that I longed for the touch of a director with more subtlety. Still, the pathos here haunted me.
Examined from a height, the essential debate here pits the instinct for self-preservation against selfless chivalry. We all know how it feels to have our space invaded, our beliefs threatened and our way of life altered. But not many of us are asked to face death in the context of making life decisions that involve the affirmation of faith at the cost of our lives. This goes far beyond the talk of losing one’s ego in an attempt to come closer to the divine. It is this very debate that informs this film.
The question, “why is faith so bitter?” is posed several times throughout Of Gods and Men. The monks, having taken vows to remove themselves from the concerns of day-to-day life, nevertheless are committed to remain in society in the service of their fellow human beings, and not to flee. It is harrowing to see them lose their lives as a consequence.
There are no comforting homilies offered here. The spiritual life is presented as austere and humorless (perhaps a misstep). The monks’ lined and weathered faces tell a story the writer (Beauvois again) can only hope to. History provides the ending and so Beauvois has little choice but to end on a discomforting note, knowing I imagine, that none of us are guaranteed to see tomorrow, so we might very well live with integrity, kindness and forgiveness.
I highly recommend this film not because I feel it is a masterpiece but because this sort of filmmaking is so very important and tremendously worthwhile and stirs the pot of our collective understanding of vital themes.
PETER VALENTYNE is a playwright, screenwriter and poet who has won an Atlantic Monthly prize for poetry. He has written numerous plays, all of which have been staged and produced in New York City, where Peter now lives.