Lost in thought
(Des Hommes et Des Diex, Xavier Beauvois, 2010, 122 minutes)
Xavier Beauvois’s meditation on moral obligation and self-sacrifice, set in Algeria in 1996, has acquired quite a reputation for itself. This true story of the struggle of nine Cictercian monks in the face of fundamentalist brutality arrived in UK cinemas with some strong testimonies to its transcendence and stirring spirituality. Having made converts in Cannes, it now has the rather dubious honour of representing French hopes during Oscar season.
It is a noble film, and its depiction of a functional cross-cultural society (in which Christian monks and their Muslim “flock” co-exist symbiotically) provides an unusual and relevant insight. The unbidden violence that disturbs this is Terrorism in its truest sense: it throws into chaos the ordered existence of monkhood, prompting fracture and infighting – both amongst the Brothers, over whether to remain, and with the army, whose suspicious attitude poses its own threat. Most significantly, the source of the Terror remains blurry at best. Without warning or reason, they descend from beyond the monastery walls and encroach on the well kept monastic gardens – it is random and absolute; it is the fear of the unknown.
The performances are exceptional, with Lambert Wilson bringing a complex mixture of weakness and strength to his role as the leading Brother, whilst the ever-watchable Michael Lonsdale as the doctor exudes a paternal dependability in his woollen hat and cardigan. More than this though, the film invests heavily in the expressiveness of the human face – still the highest currency in European cinema. Such is the economy of the performances and the facial eloquence, that despite their uniform robes and sparse dialogue, we sense a real delineation between each individual, every one of which warrants his own three dimensions.
However, whilst there is much to recommend Of Gods and Men, the worthiness of its matter cannot be included in the criteria with which it is judged. Its heart is in the right place and it is evocative of a certain style of life, but its minimal investment in its own dramatic phrasing is very unfulfilling. Too many scenes need more ruthless editing and the focus of the camera on individuals seems at times arbitrary. The use of songs from the daily mass to punctuate the film has a hypnotic effect, like a Gregorian chant, but I’m afraid the film itself is lulled in this way, all too often glazed over, unfocused and abstrusely meditative.
The much commented on ‘Last Supper’ scene, accompanied by Tchaikovsky’s ‘Swan Lake’ (again the music is diegetically included, this time via a cassette player), is a stunning illustration of the effect of music on the moving image. It transforms the scene and gives us a glimpse of what a more canny – though some might say corny – film this might have been. The potential of the drama was great, and perhaps in craftier hands so might the film have been.
But I don’t think Beauvois is interested in such things. It is a film about the annihilation of the self in preservation of something larger than us all, and in keeping with this the film is very uninterested in its own shape. For many this has come as a welcome relief, but for the rest of us too much distance from the characters and too little direction in the storytelling leaves Of Gods and Men an uneven, if thought-provoking film.