After my reservations about Monsters, it fills my heart with glad tidings to report that a film came out this week that utterly justifies the critical adoration heaped upon it. Of Gods And Men, Des hommes et des dieux, won the Grand Prix at Cannes, so it comes ready packaged as an arthouse hit. It topped the box office for weeks in its native France, and has been put forward as the French entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the forthcoming Oscars; Artificial Eye are distributing it in the UK. I saw it at the Curzon in Wimbledon, where, for some reason, there was only one screening yesterday, and it was, for Wimbledon, packed. This is a lovely sight to see. Of Gods And Men is one of the most affecting and surprising films I’ve seen all year, right up there with Un Prophete, and straight into my Top 5.
Directed by Xavier Beauvoir, with whose previous work I confess I am unacquainted, this film imagines events leading up to an actual flashpoint which took place in Algeria in 1996, which I won’t reveal – as other reviewers have done – because Beauvoir doesn’t contextualise it until the last few captions of the film, and knowing the outcome surely spoils the film. (I managed to avoid knowing about it by avoiding Peter Bradshaw’s lyrical five-star review in the Guardian until this morning, and, by chance, not having reached Jonathan Romney’s intelligent and incisive feature about the film in Sight & Sound, which, again, I caught up with this morning.) What can be safely told is this: the film is set almost exclusively within the walls of a Catholic monastery in a remote Algerian village, where its eight – and later, nine – cowled inhabitants interact harmoniously with the local, largely Muslim population, dispensing medicine and advice, and interacting with their religious rites. Meanwhile, civil war closes in, atrocities are committed outside the holy walls, and Islamic extremists threaten the monks’ very existence.
The nine brothers, led by Lambert Wilson’s bespectacled, bookish, Lofty-from-EastEnders-like Christian (a pretty decisive name for a monk), face not only a wider religious conflict that goes against the peaceable nature of their faith – Christian is seen reading, and quoting from, the Qur’an, reflecting a deep-seated desire for understanding – but a more immediate threat from a militant group of machine-carrying mountain guerillas, who – in one of the film’s most nail-biting scenes – hold the monks at gunpoint, demanding medical care, on Christmas Day, and are talked down by Christian. This makes Of Gods And Men sound like a thriller – as does its rather misleading trailer. It isn’t. Much of the screentime is taken up by a sedate, sympathetic depiction of daily life at the monastery – some might regard it as slow, I regard it as compelling and necessary. These are not pious evangelists or missionaries; they have left behind their lives and families to devote themselves to God, and do so by helping the community, despite contrasting and even conflicting faiths. This is a film about a few good men. When they sit around their table, either to break bread, or to have a democratic vote, they resemble the jurors of Twelve Angry Men, except without the prejudices and kneejerk reactions. Plus, the only fate they must decide upon is their own. Do they stay and die, or leave and live? And if they leave, where to? Their old lives? One of them describes going back to his family and feeling like a stranger.
This is a beautiful film. It evocatively captures the simplicity of both monastic life and the life of a subsistence Algerian hill farmer. As a pampered, secular Westerner, you could be forgiven for starting to long for either, so compassionately and engagingly is all this conveyed by Beauvoir and his cinematographer Caroline Champetier, who also capture the passing seasons with great subtlety. Whether the monks are making honey to sell at market, or Michael Lonsdale’s Luc is treating a small child’s burn with a beatific kiss on the head, or offering spiritual advice on love to another young villager by mischievously hinting at his own pre-monastic experiences, or Olivier Rabourdin’s doubt-wracked Christophe is ploughing a recalcitrant patch of earth, these mundane tasks seem to sing with inner peace and honest, self-sufficient labour. The brothers, too, are regularly seen singing praise in the chapel, cloaked in white robes and creating a moving, choral soundtrack for a film with no score. (The actors trained at Cistercian and Gregorian chanting for a month beforehand, as well as living at an abbey for research, and are in fine voice.)
Anyone who’s seen Of Gods And Men will surely have been struck by one extraordinary scene, which, without context, is not a spoiler. It sums up everything that is profound, universal and minimalistic about Beauvoir’s film: the monks sit around their table and Luc brings out red wine, which they drink, moderately, while listening on a ghetto blaster to the Grand Theme from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, whose narrative significance I won’t go into, for fear of devaluing the moment when you experience it, as you must. The camera simply pans around their faces, each one of which tells a story, and proves just how keenly this film has been cast. The moist eyes of the eldest brother, Amédée, played by 83-year-old Jacques Herlin, might be tears, or they might be a permanent moist symptom of old age, but they hit the spot. This is pure acting – the very depth of facial expression that Colin Firth was rightly praised for in A Single Man, when he gets “that” phonecall.
As for praise, this film deserves every drop. It’s a political and historical film without any heavy-handed contextualising. It exists in a very specific space and at a very specific time (albeit the year is not stated until those final captions and nor is the country named – you can work it out though, from the police commissioner’s talk of France’s colonial vandalism), and yet conveys timelessness and isolation. This could be any religious conflict in any country at any time. It’s a deeply religious film, about men for whom, largely, faith is just that, a concrete belief in a higher power, be it God or Allah, and yet it does not exclude the secular audience. It is possible to empathise with devout radiance without sharing the same beliefs. When the monks join together to chant over the invasive and potentially deadly roar of an army helicopter, it is as much about defiance and togetherness as it is about Christian brotherhood.
I can’t wait to see it again.