Director: Xavier Beauvois
Starring: Lambert Wilson & Michael Lonsdale
Runtime: 120 mins
Of Gods and Men is showing at City Screen. Click here for times and further details.
“Men never do evil so freely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction”, reads Luc, the doctor of the isolated monastic village in which Of Gods and Men is set. A statement which the film will in many ways prove correct. Of Gods and Men focuses on a brotherhood of eight monks, comprising a Christian stronghold in the heart of an otherwise Islamic Algeria, who find themselves increasingly threatened by a group of Muslim extremists.
Of Gods and Men gives us an inside perspective on this brotherhood, and the difficulties they face in practicing Christian values when confronted with the prospect not only of death, but of maintaining their responsibilities to the people of the village they live in. The monks, all French missionaries, are faced with the realisation that it is only a matter of time before they are assassinated by the terrorists, and must make the individual decision whether to flee the monastery for safety, or stand in solidarity with the inhabitants of the village, and face an almost certain death.
Of Gods and Men triumphs most explicitly not so much in its chronology of events, but in the shifts of atmosphere which lend it so much character. Much of the film consists of the daily activities of the monks, praying, chanting, making honey, or farming; scenes which are calming and comforting to the viewer. An atmosphere of peace and tranquillity is created which only serves to amplify the sense of threat as the brotherhood is confronted by the Islamic terrorists, who, with their guns and knives would seek to disrupt the peace of the pastoral village. Throughout Of Gods and Men a chasmic atmospheric dichotomy is carved out between the peace of the monks, and the violence of the terrorists, between the rugged pastoral calm of the village, and the mechanical threat of its attackers, and it is perhaps this dichotomy of atmosphere which makes Of Gods and Men so powerful.
The film rather surprisingly abides by many of the standards enforced by Dogme 95. Most explicitly, it refrains from using any artificial light, and from using music which does not occur within the film itself – that is to say, all music is included diegetically. The combination of these two factors results in a pared down ultra-realism. Of Gods and Men affords us no escape to relative safety in abstraction, we are completely immersed in the situations presented to us, the world of film is made real, and we are encouraged to see with the camera and hear with speakers as we would our own eyes and ears. This sense of heightened realism has interesting results for Of Gods and Men, and seems fitting given that it is after all based on real events. It works surprisingly well and the audience is truly drawn in, and given a real sense of presence.
But perhaps most impressive of all is the sonic landscape which is woven into the plot as a metaphorical device. The confrontation of ideology at times becomes a confrontation between the powers of sound. One of the movie’s most striking images comes as the monk’s chant, huddled together in solidarity, rises over and above the mechanical beatings of a helicopter circling their village, as if to say that this fraternity, the human and religious connections forged by these people are stronger than weapons, machinery or anything solid could ever be.
Although Of Gods and Men is a deeply religious film, it is also deeply humanistic and quietly wonderful. Its use of screen space demonstrates a humble kind of flair which is superbly suited to its subject matter, allowing for a highly focussed sense of emotional nuance which is able to deal a final surge of emotion which is in no way fantastical or flamboyant, but instead delicate, sombre, and tragic. Of Gods and Men is executed with such care and thought that it has truly proven itself to be more than deserving of its Grand Prix at Cannes this year.