Thursday, March 03, 2011

Film Review: 'Of Gods and Men' an excellent and moving exhibition of monastic life in revolutionary, insurgent Algieria
by Peter Menkin

Michael Lonsdale as Luc
© Marie-Julie Maille / Why Not Productions, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

This well wrought film with its many awards (first prize) from Cannes, New York, and other important places gives a fine dramatic look at a monastery in Algeria caught in the Algerian revolution, a throw-the-French-out historic event set in the later 1990’s. A true film based on the historic story, and a dramatic rendering of excellence, the language of prayers with the use of introspective reflection on their situation by the monks of the monastery hold a poetic lilt.

Simplicity of a kind in the cinematography added to this clarity of their conflicts about staying in their dangerous and acknowledged life threatening situation. Algerian insurgents would and could kill them all at any time, and though the monks struggled with their feelings about entering into a situation that would end in their martyrdom, this heroic tragedy in the life of a monastery did not evidence melodrama in its acting, it did evidence the fear of death and end of their monastic lives with God that played out throughout almost the entire movie. The actors were true to character, intelligent in their skill of acting, and gave a sense of commitment and peace through their performances.

The Algerian war was a founding event in modern Algerian history. It left long-standing scars in both French and Algerian society, and still affects some segments of society in both countries to this day. So says Wikipedia, and it also offers this quotation about that time in French and North African history, the worldly back drop to the quiet life of peace and prayer lived by the monks in their life among Muslim villagers—a long relationship of more than one generation of monks.

The Algerian War, (Arabic: ثورة جزائرية‎; French: Guerre d’Algérie), was a conflict between France and Algerian independence movements .

Left to Right: Lambert Wilson as Christian and Jean-Marie Frin as Paul
© Marie-Julie Maille / Why Not Productions, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

from 1954 to 1962, which led to Algeria gaining its independence from France. An important decolonization war, it was a complex conflict characterized by guerrilla warfare, maquis fighting, terrorism against civilians, use of torture on both sides and counter-terrorism operations by the French Army. The conflict was also a civil war between loyalist Algerian Muslims who believed in a French Algeria and their insurrectionist Algerian counterparts.

This excellent movie that this writer rates with five stars with its well defined and even underplayed, insightful actors who caught the prayer life and rhythm of monastic life so well through the direction of Xavier Beauvois won the Cannes Prize, New York Film Festival Prize and many others. It was not an Oscar choice in the United States so is not on that list for voting.

“The film is inspired by real events, as was reported in this review earlier–the still not entirely explained kidnap and murder of seven monks in Algeria in 1996 – but the narrative leads slowly round to the tragedy, which happens only at the very end, and largely off-screen.

“In a Cistercian monastery in North Africa in the 90s, eight monks live in cordial harmony with the local population.” So writes Jonathan Romney in “Screen Daily.” Since he as a reviewer puts it so well about the director, here is a quotation from his review as displayed on “Screen Daily’s” website: “One-time enfant terrible Xavier Beauvois has long been a respected presence on the French scene, making his name with dramas such as Don’t Forget You’re Going To Die (1995) and the police story Le Petit Lieutenant (2005). With Of Gods and Men, his time for wider recognition has surely come, this thoughtful but urgent piece showing that Beauvois has matured into a masterly director with tight, calm control of his material.”

Relyiing on his opinion on the history of Director Xavier Beauvois’ work, suffice it to be known when watching the screening on a cold and windy day in San Francisco at the Variety Club screening room, it was apparent to this reviewer that the pacing and beat of the played cinema
Xavier Beauvois (director)
© Claude Laire, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

m moved the based-on-a-true story drama to engaging and believable contemporary film experience. I liked this film a great deal.

For this writer, when two monks attended a Moslem celebration earlier in the film, afterward, later, one character who was a doctor told a young woman regarding love of his call to the monastery and living his monastic vocation: “I answered another love, even greater.” The monks were intimately involved in the lives of the villagers, even to the extent of visiting private, personal Muslim religious ceremonies and listening to a young woman’s romantic love life.

That exemplifies the kind of language use of dialogue in this film: just enough to say.

Screenwriter Etienne Comar writes of his work:

Though rated PG-13 there is some violence, and just a touch of blood. Croations building a roadway are slaughtered, throats cut, by Algerian insurgents, for they are foreigners. The monks are offered French military protection after this. When the French officer asks the leader of the monks, after he refuses their protection, “What do you want?” the monk replies, “This is a house of peace.” This is a dramatic and moving moment, underplayed in its manner of drama, but effective in communicating a chilling reality of the monk’s values and purpose in life.
OF GODS & MEN is loosely based on the Tibhirine tragedy. It explores the last few months in the life of this small community of Christian monks in a “Muslim land.” The film is more interested in capturing the spirit of the events and what was at stake in the community than in recounting the exact details of a historic reality.

The story begins several weeks before the terrorists issued an ultimatum ordering all foreigners to leave the country. An armed terrorist group even broke into the monastery on Christmas Eve.

Top row, left to right: Lambert Wilson as Christian, Jacques Herlin as Amédée, Loïc Pichon as Jean-Pierre, Michael Lonsdale as Luc, and Philippe Laudenbach as Célestin
Bottom row, left to right: Olivier Rabourdin as Christophe, Jean-Marie Frin as Paul and Xavier Maly as Michel
© Alice Cambournac / Why Not Productions, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

There are many moving moments in this film; one moving performance is when the leader of the monastery, Christian, faces Ali, leader of the Algerians, for the first time. This is the start of a realization on the part of the monks that they may be killed, and that the thought dawns on them they may become martyrs if they stay. Some words during prayer offer what is a seeming contradiction after this scene, but these words and their prayer that they chant really illuminates and bears the hope of their lives, and a statement about God’s goodness and purpose for mankind: “God has prepared the earth like a cradle.” God is forever; man is but a passing figure, like the grass, he withers. Yet God holds man in a divine love, and finds a resting place for him…even in life there is this cradle for mankind made by God. So one interpretation by this writer goes.

The monastics move on in their recognition the Algerians may kill them, and they are afraid to die. In their prayer session, again a statement that written here appears blatant, but is really quite moving in its context—so this viewer found—“Glory be to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We shall watch with Christ.” There is this ongoing joy, in both the secular and religious sense offered in these lines.

There is some of the anguish of the decision to stay in the monastery, rather than flee, return to France. As one monk says, “Dying for my faith should not keep me up nights.” At one of their meetings of the monastery members, the leader Christian polls the monks, and finally all raise a hand to stay. At one point during prayer, which is a frequent activity in the monastery, they sing, “…For you night is as clear as day.” So one sees this vision of even the monastic who is vowed of his coming end and martyrdom is not so easily made as a way to travel—voluntary death, in its way. The way to martyrdom is not so clear a way when looking ahead or one suspects even living it.

So as not to ruin the film for a viewer, but still because the long scene at the film’s end is so strong, let me note the Algerians come in the snow of winter and take all away but two monks who had hidden from them in the monastery. Held as hostages, most die when we see them march into a field, in the snow, entering the woods.

It is so surprising to this writer that the film did not become part of the American Oscar scene this year. I will offer my surprise again in a few lines.

This writer remarks that Jon Frosch writes on the website “French Review,” Still, the omission of Xavier Beauvois’s critically beloved “Of Gods and Men” (“Des hommes et des dieux”) in the Best Foreign Language Film category of Oscar nominees has raised some eyebrows and hurt a few feelings in France. Adding salt to the wound is the fact that the Academy nominated Rachid Bouchareb’s “Outside the Law”, an Algerian entry accused by several French politicians of being anti-French.” This writer wishes to add his voice to the statement by Jon Frosch, offering surprise that it was not included in the American Oscar competition. Too bad.

Franck Garbarz, a critic for prestigious French film magazine Positif, told that the French reaction was one of “hurt pride”, and admitted he would have rather seen “Of Gods and Men” nominated. This writer notes from the sense of history and current concerns in the relations of Muslims to Christians and terrorism in our contemporary word it seems an odd thing to ignore the film, which will on its own merits without Oscar publicity reach a good sized movie going audience. Go see it; you will be happy you did.

The Press statement offered by Sony Corporation reads:

Left to Right: Philippe Laudenbach as Célestin,
Xavier Maly as Michel, Lambert Wilson as Christian,
Jean-Marie Frin as Paul
and Loïc Pichon as Jean-Pierre/ (Backs to camera)
Left to Right: Michael Lonsdale as Luc and Jacques Herlin as Amédée

© Why Not Productions, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

In 1996 the kidnapping and murder of the seven French monks of Tibhirine was one of the culminating points of the violence and atrocities in Algeria resulting from the confrontation between the government and extremist terrorist groups that wanted to overthrow it.
The disappearance of the monks – caught in a vice between both sides- had a great and long-lasting effect on the governments, religious communities and international public opinion. The identity of the murderers and the exact circumstances of the monks’ deaths remain a mystery to this day.

The case was taken up by a French court in 2003. Certain documents were recently declassified. In the upcoming months, new revelations may finally bring the truth to light.

The use of Psalms by monks is well known in their prayer life, study, individual prayer and liturgy of worship. Monastic advisor for the film “Of Gods and Men” offers this longish comment on the Psalms used in the movie:

He says…as they relate directly to the increasingly serious events that are shaking the monastery and the region [these words are spoken by the actors in this based on a true story rendition of filmic excellence].

The enemy persecutes my soul
He has smitten my life to the ground
He has made me dwell in darkness
with those long dead
My spirit grows faint within me
My heart within me, dismayed (Psalm 142)

Lastly, the monks’ choir is the heart of God. This chorus intervenes as it would in a Greek tragedy, as a theological and spiritual commentary of the action. The songs give God words, and God gives his Spirit of communion and peaceful resistance to the monks who are caught up in the turmoil of an increasingly menacing and problematic violence.

To the worrisome drone of a helicopter whirring above the monastery, the community opposes a mystical and disarmed hope:

The shadows, for you are not shadows
For you, night is as clear as day.
The military apparatus disappears, but the question lingers: should one stay or leave? The community meetings will not suffice. The answer lies in the word of God, listened to, meditated upon and celebrated:

Save us, Lord, whilst we watch!
Keep us, Lord, whilst we sleep!
And we shall watch with Christ
And we shall rest in peace…

Under the audience’s gaze, the monks sing their life and live their singing–to the extreme:

Because he is with us in this time of violence,
let us not dream that he is everywhere
other than where we die.
Let us make haste.
Kidnappers and monks disappear in the snow and the fog. They all take on the color of the liturgical clothes in which the brothers prayed and sang.

In the heart of winter, the paradoxical victory of Light:

We do not see your face,
Infinite Love,
but you do have eyes
for you weep through the oppressed
and look upon us
with a shining gaze
that reveals your forgiveness

This review was written for and originally appeared in The Church of England Newspaper, London.

1 comment:

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