Thursday 2 December 2010

Spirit: "Of Gods and Men"

Xavier Beauvois' new drama Of Gods and Men takes a senseless real-life atrocity - the slaughter of seven Cistercian monks in Algeria in 1996 - and shapes it into something altogether meaningful: a philosophical meditation on the nature of true faith, and grace (in all senses of the word) under pressure. One of these seven will at one stage have cause to turn to Pascal's Pensées, therein finding the axiom "Men never do evil so completely and so cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction". Yet Beauvois' project over the bulk of these two hours is to demonstrate how the reverse is just as easily true: that religious conviction can equally, in certain circumstances, engender acts of the utmost goodness and selflessness.

These monks are by no means silent recluses; rather, they're defined by the extent to which they've become integrated into their North African surrounds. In early scenes, we see the venerable Brother Luc (the ever-watchable Michel Lonsdale) dispensing medical and romantic wisdom to the locals, while his confreres take the monastery's own-brand honey to market. Together, they attend an Islamist prayer meeting: as the group's nominal leader, the aptly named Christian (Lambert Wilson) underlines during his own prayer rituals, "we make no distinction between any of His messengers".

Fundamentalist activity has, however, come to creep ever closer. There are reports of a schoolgirl knifed for not wearing the hijab, an imam shot down for being too liberal in his teachings. Then the gunmen themselves arrive at the monastery, none too enlightened ("Are you the Pope?," one of the younger interlopers asks the first monk who greets them), but deadly keen to mark their territory. What follows plays as an update of the old Good Shepherd parable: while reluctant to flee the monastery and leave the village to the terrorists, the monks are given pause to wonder what to do now the wolves are at their door.

In strictly cinematic terms, however, Of Gods and Men comes to form the masculine to Claire Denis' summer success White Material. Both films depict states of siege, encroaching violence, protagonists who come to wave away the authorities in order to stand alone - though here the monks' decision to stay is less a statement of independence than a test of collective faith. These brothers stand together, adjusting their matins and hymnals to suit the prevailing mood, and as such, it's yet another French film to be concerned at an essential level with the idea of community. (In an American telling of this story, of course, one monk would renounce his vows and lead the others to fight back.)

We've seen several monastic items upon our screens of late - the documentaries Into Great Silence and No Greater Love, plus the feature In Memory of Me - each one attempting to make compelling highly internal activity, such devotion as perhaps now seems alien or exotic to the majority of viewers. Yet Beauvois and co-writer Etienne Comar are less interested in the monks' chosen path than in the character of these men. For all the hosts and cassocks, its unavoidable iconography, Of Gods and Men plays equally well as a secular study of individuals reacting to an increasingly desperate situation: Wilson's nervy Christian is forced to weigh his principles against the needs of those whose lives and souls he's been entrusted with; Lonsdale's Luc, who claims to have fought both the Nazis and the Devil, is all bluff stoicism, masking growing fatigue; the tortured Christophe (Olivier Rabourdin, a dead ringer for John Terry) cries out for salvation in the middle of the night.

Its chosen aesthetic is less distinctive than that of White Material, but those who found the latter film a little too abstracted for its own good should respond more easily to Beauvois' choices. The imagery is solid rather than fluid: the monks are filmed head-on in comparatively spare tableaux, the one exception being during their last supper together, in which Brother Luc busts out the wine and radio cassette player, and - to the strains of Swan Lake - the reality of what's likely to happen to them in the coming hours finally hits home; it's not just numerical coincidence that makes this the ecumenical equivalent of the heroism to be found in the last reel of, say, The Magnificent Seven. In its own austere way, the film serves as a very fine, highly affecting tribute: through such moments as these, through the superlative performances, these monks live on. The movie gods, as ever, have the last laugh.

Of Gods and Men opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.

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