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