The French director Xavier Beauvois was unknown to me in 1995, the first year I attended Cannes, where his second feature, N'oublie pas que tu vas mourir, premiered in the competition. (In English, it was called Don’t Forget You’re Going to Die.) At the time, the movie was overshadowed by Emir Kusturica’s Palme d’Or-winning Underground.
Perhaps because Kusturica hasn’t made an interesting film in more than a decade (Black Cat, White Cat), Beauvois’s film holds up a lot better now in my own memory. In that film (unfortunately unavailable here), Beauvois used the backdrop of the Balkans’ tragedy to make a powerful though also restrained film about violence, racial antagonism and cultural grievance. In the interim, the talented Beauvois has developed a more refined style, both more open and adventurous and less confrontational and assaultive.
He’s a fairly prolific (and very effective actor), probably best known here for his role as the father of the young girl coping with the death of her mother in Jacques Doillon’s superb Ponette. I still have never caught up with his debut film, Nord. His third narrative feature, Le petit lieutenant, released here a couple of years ago, was a taut and fascinating police procedural memorable for its sharp characterizations and excellent performances, especially Nathalie Baye and Jalil Lespert in the title part.
His new film, Of Gods and Men, France’s submission for best foreign language feature, won the grand prix, or second prize, at Cannes last May and also captured four top prizes of the French equivalent of the Academy Awards last Friday.
Of Gods and Men, which opened last week in New York and expands in other markets this week, is a smart, intriguing study about social tolerance and political violence that provocatively poses the question of whether faith and attendant religious expression mitigates violence or somehow fuels it by providing a rationale. It’s also a deeply philosophical film, which asks strong and pertinent questions about the nature of man and his capacity for good and evil.
Beauvois wrote the script with Etiene Comar, and they based the story on the Tibhirine tragedy, the mesmerizing though complicated story about a group of Cistercian monks who disappeared in 1996 under never fully explained circumstances.
The director fictionalizes the story, but the architecture of the story remains firmly in place. The movie is set in North Africa, where the pious and exceptionally dedicated monks are fully integrated into the local population. Their spiritual mandate is one predicated on silence, prayer and group consultations that in their naturally deliberate process, matters that concern the brothers are talked about, argued and voted on.
Beauvois’s own work and practice as an actor grants a deep facility for and appreciation for the nuances of the craft. The group’s leader, Christian (Lambert Wilson), is an intellectual and voracious reader. His knowledge of the Koran and sensitivity to religious differences makes him ideally suited to interact with the local village’s religious and social leaders. Wilson is one of those skilled and versatile actors who’s unfairly obscure here. Unlike his work with Alain Resnais (Not on the Lips), everything is more naturally inward and interiorized.
Given the subject and the tone, the movie is probably too severe and emotionally restricted to become an art-house hit, but one part that made it less grueling and more accessible was the give and take between Christian and Luc (Michael Lonsdale), the doctor who administers valuable medical practice. It brought a human dimension to a work that is otherwise unflagging in its discipline and structure.
(The daily rhythms and private movements of the men is wholly governed by the monastery; that is built on severity. The ascetic and stripped down life of the monks is governed by an absence of worldly pleasures or physical comfort. That’s not very easy or “fun,” in the traditional sense to dramatize.)
The other six monks are not as well individuated, but the actors playing them are secure and vibrant enough to give a sense of individuality and some shreds of personality. Beauvois and his great cinematographer Caroline Champetier, who has worked for Jacques Rivette, Jean-Luc Godard and Benoit Jacquot, compensate with a series of evocative and sharp portraits that focus on the weathered, craggy faces and beat down bodies. Other than Christian, the other men are older. (Even Luc complains about the physical deterioration of his body.)
Their world is shattered when they learn a band of heavily armed Islamic militants have killed a group of Croatian workers, violently cutting their throats and watching them bleed to death that is part of a fundamentalist campaign to unseat the unpopular and possibly corrupt government. The monks are offered military protection, but they turn it down. It occasions the first of several stark and soul searching debates between the men as they discuss the possibility of leaving the monastery.
In the most riveting sequence of the film‘s first half, the Islamic fighters turn up at the monastery and request medical aid and comfort. In an electric showdown, Christian and the militants’ leader (Farid Larbi) alternate quotations of the Koran, the latter in French, the former in Arabic. The moment produces a shared sense of respect, but it also underlines how tenuous the monks‘ collective position is and fact their own shared faith or status is hardly a shield or protectorate against violence being done to them.
The tension ratchets up and produces desperation and profound worry on the point of view of the men balanced against the encroaching religious disorder swirling around them, like Christian’s meeting with the more moderate village leaders who also warn them to depart. They allude to a recent case of two women teachers being slaughtered for giving relationship advice to a group of Islamic teenagers.
Of Gods and Men is a deeply moral film, but it also makes the valid point of how closely intertwined each man is to the institution and practices of the monastery. They are likely to feel alienated and out of place wherever they turn. In a telling story by one of the brothers about his return home to France, he makes clear the order’s emphasis on charity, peace and giving inevitably make each brother feel tremendously out of place and time.
Working in widescreen, Beauvois has a fleet, telling visual style, either following Christian as he moves through the vast spaces of the mountain ranges that contain the monastery or in the most thrilling moment, traces the lines and shapes of the men’s face as each is alternately riveted or knocked out to the powerful strains of “Swan Lake.”The film ends mysteriously and ambiguously in a fog shrouded haze.
Of Gods and Men grants a divinity and worthiness to both sides that accentuates and makes deeply palpable the sting of loss and failure.