Review: The musings ‘Of Gods and Men’
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
For a lot of us – OK, let’s start with me – the words of the gospel have been heard so many times that they have become sonic wallpaper – always there, always heard, almost never actually taken into account.
I noticed this as I began watching “Of Gods and Men,” by French director Xavier Beauvois. The film is set in the early ’90s in a Catholic monastery in a mountainous North African village. Being a monastery, a lot of praying goes on; being praying, there are a lot of phrases about forgiveness and sacrifice, fearing no evil and being led away from temptation. I’ve heard the prayers over and over, and my mind strayed, wanting to get to the story.
But those monks, being monks, kept on praying at frequent points throughout the film, despite my impatience. And as the story unfolded, and the monks forgave, sacrificed and feared no evil, those words started to become illuminated. I paid closer attention to those words, actually considered them. And I, too, resisted temptation – the urge to hit the fast-forward button.
The monks of the Monasteri d’Atlas in Algeria have a warm, close relationship with the Muslim villagers who are their neighbors. The monks’ primary mission, it seems, is to provide medical services to the townfolk, who line up daily to be tended to by the patient Brother Luc. The village elders talk religious philosophy with the monks; the two sides, despite coming from different traditions, have developed their own tradition – not just of tolerance, but of seeing the common threads of Muslim and Christian teachings. Given the mountains, the closeness of nature, the symbiotic relationship between the two groups, it is an ideal place for monks to seek their bliss.
It doesn’t last. Islamic fundamentalism is creeping closer, till one day a group of Croatians working on a nearby construction site are slaughtered. The monks understand that the zealots will eventually be coming for them – if not murderously, then at least forcefully. Exactly what the fundamentalists are angered about, and where threatening a group of benign monks gets them is never made clear. And that seems to be part of the statement being made here: The viewer is forced to question the notion that violence and anger are always ultimately pointless. But the monks have enough concern for their earthly incarnations to consider whether they should abandon their mission, and find safer quarters elsewhere.
This is the bulk of the movie: Should I stay or should I go? Each monk ponders the question on a personal level, but the issue is also raised as a communal matter. (These people take to heart the idea of being their brother’s keeper.) As the fundamentalist threat encroaches closer, the monks begin to get, on a very specific level, into the core issues of religion: When does self-sacrifice become tantamount to suicide? What kind of legacy are we leaving? What is our purpose here?
Director Beauvois, working from a true story, raises the issues intelligently and naturally, and with no forced answers. The darkness of the cinematography is well-pitched to the story and setting. “Of Gods and Men” has piled up awards, including the French Cesar for best film, and at Cannes, the prize of the Ecumenical Jury, plus a nomination for the Palme d’Or.
Still, the film asks a monk-like patience of its audience. The pace is slow. Each issue is raised, circled around, considered from various points of view, until the point is made. Given the depths it hits, that is appropriate.
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