“Of Gods and Men”
A film review by Jordan Overstreet
Director: Xavier Beauvois
Producer(s): Armada Films, France 3 Cinema, Why Not Prods.
Screenplay: Xavier Beauvois and Etienne Comar
Main players: Lambert Wilson, Michael Lonsdale, Olivier Rabourdin, Philippe Laudenbach, Jacques Herlin, Loïc Pichon, Xavier Maly, and Jean-Marie Frin
Napping in the afternoon is a habit I broke back in my youth before I hit double digits. I leave the insides of eyelids for the over seventy crowd to date. This was before I saw an encore screening of Xavier Beauvois’ “Of Gods and Men” last Sunday at the Cannes Film Festival. Based on true events, the film seeks to explain the 1996 mysterious execution of seven French Catholic monks by a radical Muslim group in remote Algeria. You would imagine with a logline like that, focusing on the story would be a simple task; however, “Of Gods and Men” is visual Ambien.
“Of Gods and Men” follows the lives of nine monks whom run a monastery in a small, rural area of Algeria. The ensemble cast of aging French actors is headed by Lambert Wilson, who was recently seen in “The Princess of Montpensier” earlier this week. The first large portion of the film attempts to introduce the audience to the daily life in the monastery; thus, we see the monks eat; we see the monks pray; we see the monks farm; we see the monks help the villagers by treating them medically and clothing them; we see the monks sell honey at the local market; but most importantly, we see that the monks have a understanding of the Koran. Through these actions, which are heavily drawn out and captured in such an unentertaining way, the audience learns the way of the world in the monastery. First off, I feel that this may be the appropriate time to note that I am not a deeply religious person. That being said, when I view a film I want to be excited or at least interested in the community that it project on screen; however, there is nothing sexy about watching what I consider to be the AARP sect of the French Catholics in Algeria. They sing, chant, and pray far more than they actually articulate speech. Granted, I realize that monks lead relatively quiet lives, but couldn’t Beauvois have lied just a little and made them more interesting? Normally I loathe using this term, but its necessary to be applied to this film. “Of Gods and Men” needed the Hollywood treatment badly.
Being an American citizen, the events surrounding the disappearance of these monks is foreign to me; I needed further background into the historical significance of the event; what exactly was going on in Algeria? Any introductory level history class will teach you that French-Algerian relations have been strained (to say the least) since the Algerian fight for their independence in the 1950’s. Beauvois provides the spectator will little background information surrounding the conflict. First off, Beauvois never tells the audience where exactly we are; all we see is images of a remote African or Middle Eastern township. I am not asking that Beauvois hand us a syllabus, I would like, however, him to consider for the importance of the historical context. Time and time again, we are asked to feel threatened by these radical Muslim sects through the use of violence; yet, it seems highly unlikely that the men of God would be the targets of their terror. The threat of death is not accentuated enough; I don’t believe that nine grown men would actually fear these radicals; thus, abandoning their monastery becomes a matter of pride. If nine grown men desert a village that has become dependent to the extent that the lives of the villagers hinge on the presence of the monks, I find it exceedingly difficult to believe that they would leave. I mean, hello, the would look like such pansies if they aborted their mission, not to mention their flight would go against their vows.
As the film wore on, I kept being reminded of Michael Powell’s drama “Black Narcissus,” which follows the trials of a group British nuns, headed by Deborah Kerr, in imperial India. Underscored by the plight of British imperialism in the East, Powell’s film explores how these nuns cannot grapple the harsh elements and are tested by their feelings, especially Kerr, for the Henry Morton Stanley character down the mountain. Like Beauvois’ monks, Powell’s nuns cannot cohabitate with the wild, untamed environment that surrounds them, proving that the jungles of India are no place for God. What Powell’s film has that “Of Gods and Men” lacks is a sub-plot, which allows the spectator some glamour (perhaps the correct word is entertainment) during his story about nuns. I guess women religious figures are far more interesting to watch on screen than their male counterparts.
The most compelling moment of the film, the last supper that is shared by the monks, is completely overshadowed by Beauvois’ excessive uses of long shots. There were so many moments throughout the film during which Beauvois would allow the camera to sit on his subject for far to long. I kept hoping Samuel Goldwyn would rise from the orchestra and assert that his ass had started to hurt twenty minuets earlier and that Beauvois needed to cut at least forty-five minuets out of this dragging drama. Unfortunately, no Goldwyn appeared so I was left to try to keep my eyes open.
Also present in competition was Rachid Bouchareb’s “Outside of the Law,” which followed three Algerian brothers in Paris and their contribution to the fight for Algerian independence. During the screening an odd thing occurred. When the film illustrated the French gaining their independence from Germany, following the end of World War II, the audience lit up and cheered; however, when the film reached its end and captured Algeria’s independence from France, there was not the same bolster of applause. Algeria is still a sore subject apparently. While I am sure someone while lined pockets was the culprit for getting “Of Gods and Men” into the competition, I feel as though the film was used as a counter-argument for Bouchareb’s film. If this is the case, whatever France and Algeria have going on, I think its time they has a dialogue. I highly recommend making a more convincing argument that will keep even the laziest diplomats from falling asleep.