Two archival photos of the French Trappist monks of the Tibhirine Notre-Dame de l'Atlas monastery of Medea, 1996
OF GODS AND MEN (Des Hommes et Des Dieux) B+
France (120 mi) 2010 ‘Scope d: Xavier Beauvois
I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High. But ye shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes.
Despite its heralded success at Cannes, taking the second prize or Grand Prix award, this is a surprisingly formulaic film, much more so than his earlier works which play out in a more gritty and realistic manner. Based on a real life incident of nine French Trappist monks that took place at a Trappist monastery in Algeria in 1996, this also has a near documentary approach, but the somber and grave undertones depicted throughout the picture foreshadow the outcome, significantly altering the overall impact, very much like Gus Van Sant’s ELEPHANT (2003), as what happens feels inevitable and preordained instead of the spontaneous actions of free men. Not the towering work it might otherwise have been, there is also an opening Biblical quote from Psalm 82 that undercuts the dramatic impact, as the finale is anything but a surprise and has been anticipated all along, as the narrative itself has removed any sense of suspense. Be that as it may, the film is beautifully poetic with a meticulous precision for the rhythm and manner of actual Trappist monks. My guess is that the individual appreciation of the film may increase depending upon the devoutness of one’s religious convictions, as there is a religious sweep to what happens, much of which is layered in actual scripture. Since Jesus himself is viewed in Christianity as a martyr whose ultimate sacrifice for mankind defines the essence of being human, he is the model used by the monks themselves in demonstrating their own humanity.
Based on actual historical circumstances, thirty years after their independence as a French colony, Algeria was caught up in a bloody civil war where a corrupt government annulled unfavorable election results and declared martial law while a ruthless Islamic insurgency was attempting to eradicate the nation from foreigners and infidels with what seemed like daily occurrences of beheadings and throat slashings. Within this context, the original government representative asks the monks to return to France, as he can no longer vouch for their safety. The situation had become too volatile. Initially the leader of the monks, Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson), scoffs at the idea as they are committed to peace, but over time, growing fears lead many of his fellow monks to raise objections about staying, thinking it would be suicidal. Based on their conflicting views, they decide to pray and ask for God’s guidance in the matter. While this is not a historical account, rather a poetic rendering of their search for faith during a time of deepening crisis, each is perceived in the most human sense reacting to their own fears and flaws, where some have difficulty sleeping at night, others find God silently absent, and all struggle with their ongoing doubts about the conflict. What the movie does portray well is an interesting harmony that exists with the local Muslim community, as part of the monk’s vows include poverty and charitable work, providing free medicine and health care to the poor while also intermingling with traditional Islamic religious events, where they are regarded as friends and as welcome as any Muslim. Early in the film before the eruption of violence, local Algerian men freely offer assistance in needed help around the monastery as well. But soon, bloodshed and fear are everywhere, where the local police still harbor resentment and blame leftover from the French colonial era.
Shown as a repeated motif are the continuing images of the daily rituals within the monastery, dressing in robes and hoods, reading and writing letters by hand, attending group meetings and sharing meals where their personal thoughts are conveyed, but especially the communal songs and solemn prayers that the monks sing in unison which act as the film’s spiritual narration. What’s likely to appeal to viewers is the collective portrait of human decency and personal intimacy reflected during such barren and hostile conditions, where men lead starkly austere and unadorned lives, where they spend their lives in a state of perpetual reflection seeking nothing more than the grace of God. Simplicity is the key, as these are men who do not concern themselves with anything except what’s essential, reflected so eloquently by the sect’s physician Brother Luc (Michael Lonsdale) as he offers his most heartfelt thoughts to a young Muslim girl about the essence of true love, while in another scene he literally immerses himself into the interior realm of a religious painting, placing his cheek directly onto Christ’s chest, as if listening for his heartbeat. Perhaps the most controversial sequence is the blatant tribute to Carl Dreyer and his silent film era use of painterly close ups in THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC (1928), so modernist at its inception, but easily attributed here in a signature Last Supper shot set to the music of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, a scene Beauvois brilliantly makes his own as there’s a timeless poetry reflected by the sheer joy of communal love. The use of snow at the end is especially haunting, reminiscent of Kurosawa’s DREAMS (1990), where reality becomes coated with a dreamlike fog that closes the film with a hushed whisper.