Mak­ing Mon­sters: Don­ald Clarke on how they did it, p8. Plus nine movies re­viewed,

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Front Page -

MONKS ARE dif­fer­ent. Even the most lib­eral, sec­u­lar film-maker can, when con­fronted by all that self­less­ness and as­ceti­cism, cast aside qualms and em­brace the el­e­gant sim­plic­ity. Xavier Beau­vois, di­rec­tor of such hard-edged dra­mas as The Young Lieu­tenant and Don’t For­get You’re Go­ing to Die, en­er­gised a slightly lack­lus­tre Cannes with this pow­er­ful drama six months ago. It holds up well.

Fol­low­ing a group of Cis­ter­cian monks – among the few Chris­tians in a re­mote corner of Al­ge­ria – dur­ing trou­bled times in the mid1990s, Of Gods and Men makes great use of that di­vine am­bi­ence. But it would be wrong to sug­gest that, like some cin­e­matic ver­sion of quasi-sa­cred new age mu­sic, the film merely ex­ploits the su­per­fi­cial trap­pings of the holy life. (Though it does wal­low in monk­ish moods.)

Beau­vois’s fine film, which be­comes more af­fect­ing the longer its left to per­co­late in the brain, of­fers im­pres­sively nu­anced por­traits of a large ar­ray of pe­cu­liar char­ac­ters. On re­flec­tion it de­serves the Grand Prix (es­sen­tially the sil­ver medal) it picked up at Cannes.

Early on in an oth­er­wise pa­cific film, we en­counter a moment of ap­palling vi­o­lence when a group of Croa­t­ian contractors have their throats slit by Ar­maLite-wield­ing ma­ni­acs. Of­fer­ing echoes (or, per­haps, pre­cur­sors) of cur­rent con­flicts, the pic­ture takes place at a time when rad­i­cal Is­lamists were ex­tend­ing their in­flu­ence.

The in­hab­i­tants of the monastery have, to this point, main­tained good re­la­tions with their neigh­bours. Brother Chris­tian (Lam­bert Wil­son), the head monk, demon­strates a close un­der­stand­ing of the Qu’ran. Brother Luc, played with well-sea­soned ec­cen­tric­ity by the great Michael Lons­dale, calls upon his med­i­cal train­ing to treat the cit­i­zen’s bunions and stom­ach aches. Beau­vois is keen to es­tab­lish that these are good men as well as good Chris­tians.

Re­call­ing the doc­u­men­tary Into Great Si­lence, the film pays close at­ten­tion to rit­ual and rou­tine. We see how the monks eat. We see how they farm. We lis­ten to a se­quence of hyp­notic Gre­go­rian chants. Invit­ing Caro­line Cham­petier to move her cam­era with litur­gi­cal re­straint, Beau­vois al­lows the viewer com­plete emer­sion in this alien world.

As the film pro­gresses, the he­roes are con­fronted with chal­lenges from two di­rec­tions. The Al­ge­rian au­thor­i­ties de­mand that they ac­cept pro­tec­tion. They refuse. The swelling band of Is­lamist rebels de­mand med­i­cal sup­plies. It grad­u­ally be­comes clear that the monks are drift­ing to­wards some sort of un­de­served catas­tro­phe.

It would be wrong to make too much of the jux­ta­po­si­tions be­tween pas­sive Chris­tian­ity and ac­tive Is­lam. Of Gods and Men is so sure in its cast­ing and so blessed in its per­for­mances that per­son­al­i­ties con­tin­u­ally reg­is­ter more strongly than ide­olo­gies. Lons­dale (hang­dog, sar­donic) and Wil­son (sharp, un­flinch­ing) of­fer up par­tic­u­larly vivid char­ac­ter stud­ies of wise – if not al­ways pru­dent – men fac­ing un­man­age­able chal­lenges.

On a few brief oc­ca­sions the film feels a lit­tle too for­mal and man­nered. One sup­pos­edly bravura se­quence finds monks, ar­ranged as if at the Last Sup­per, eat­ing their meal to a record­ing of Swan Lake. The scene is car­ried off with some flair, but its showi­ness jars with the mea­sured tone else­where. One senses Beau­vois pan­ick­ing slightly at the still­ness of his own aes­thetic.

For the most part, how­ever, Of Gods and Men of­fers a be­witch­ing com­bi­na­tion of beau­ti­ful in­tro­spec­tion and deeply buried, im­per­cep­ti­bly es­ca­lat­ing ten­sion. You could, if you wish, read it as a com­ment on the times. Af­ter all, few coun­tries have fret­ted more than France about the re­la­tion­ship be­tween western Euro­pean val­ues and those of Is­lam. But the film works best as a time­less mus­ing on the odd ways brave hu­mans re­act to un­ac­cept­able pres­sures.

The fi­nal mo­ments, though no nois­ier than what has come be­fore, ,fairly rat­tle the psy­che.


The quiet man: con­tem­plat­ing the way of the cowl in Of Gods and Men

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