Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Xavier Beauvois' OF GODS AND MEN opens: the worthwhile uses of religious faith

If you follow this blog much, you'll know how little use TrustMovies has for religion of any kind -- or even a belief in what's-his-name. Yet TM was greatly moved, provoked and made to think and feel strongly by the new film from Xavier Beauvois, shown below, who a few years back gave us the fine Le Petit Lieutenant. His new movie OF GODS AND MEN is about faith: that experienced by a group of monks in Northern Africa who, for years, have ministered to the generally impoverished local people living around their hilltop monastery, and who, when civil war and terrorist acts threaten the lives of all foreigners in the area, must decide whether or leave Africa, as both the French and Algerian governments suggest/command, or  to stay and continue what they see as God's work and their job.

The monks' decision, how they arrive at it, and what follows shortly after is the meat of this two-hour movie, which is among the best of the year, from any country. In one of the unaccountable, and I am afraid rather typical (and for film lovers, shameful) acts of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences this year was to not even shortlist the movie for Best Foreign Language Film and instead nominate a piece of dreck boasting one clever idea with little follow-through (but lots of transgressive sex and other odd behavior -- Dogtooth -- in order, one assumes, to prove its ability to be meaninglessly au courant. Of Gods and Men, which, in addition to being a fine and artful film, actually rose to the top of the French box-office for several weeks when it opened in its home country last year. The French, of course, occasionally allow challenging films with ideas and gravity to trump comedies and those films with special effects -- as even we do when something like The Social Network comes along.

Of Gods and Men deals with the hastening threat to the lives of these Christian monks, shown above, as well as with their day-to-day activity helping the Muslim locals (below), and the peaceful co-existence of the two religions is heartening to see -- until it begins to fall apart, through no fault of either the locals or the monks. The film appears to put the blame nearly equally on the pro-fundamentalist, anti-Algerian-government forces -- and perhaps even more so on the failing Algerian government itself. What happened to these monks is now history but who did the deed (or ordered it done) seems less certain.

As the danger nears and grows, and the monks themselves argue whether to stay or go, you'll find yourself hanging on every word and being jerked one way, then another. Over time, and as the monks talk and think and pray, minds change and a more mutual understanding looms.

Meanwhile, the insurgents come to the monastery for medical help -- and being good Christians, the monks provide it. (That's the indispensable octogenarian Michael Lonsdale, above, as the monk most familiar with medicine.)

The leader of the group is played by the oft-seen, handsome leading man Lambert Wilson (above, left), and this role is perhaps his finest among many good ones. All the monks, as well as the few locals we come to know at all, are well cast and make their characters as memorable as possible under circumstances that shorten and darken as the movie proceeds.

What makes Of God and Men so special is that Beauvois and his cast treat faith as something from which acts -- not simply thoughts and feelings -- are fashioned, and so becomes as meaningful for the people who possess it as life itself.  The viewer need not even believe in the existence of a higher power to cheer these strong, frightened, torn and caring men. Their work, their lives prove reason enough.  The film -- from Sony Pictures Classics -- opens this Friday, February 25, in New York City at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema and the Landmark Sunshine, and in Los Angeles at The Landmark. Further cities and theaters will shortly follow.


AnthonyL said...

Useful review James thanks, showing why we need independent reviews by intelligent and practiced reviewers like yourself. A film with monks as heroes despite their faith in the impossible is an intriguing category. Probably wouldn't have heard of this one except for your bringing it to our attention, and the fact that Oscar ignored it is a great concern.

attavan said...

Xavier Beauvois' OF GODS AND MEN was wonderful... intelligent, spiritual, sad but uplifting too. Too bad there aren't more like this one. So many movies are time-wasters. Not this! BRAVO to Beauvois and all involved.

James van Maanen, said...

You're right, Attavan, we do need more like this. In fact, as I look back on all the films I've covered since OF GODS AND MEN, your comment makes me realize how paltry many of them have been -- even though I enjoyed them and recommend them. A movie like Beauvois' comes along rarely.

And Anthony: I hope you were able to catch the film during its run (which may still be going on...?)

Anonymous said...

I did not feel like turning into a Catholic, but the movie made me wonder on the generous heart of some people, on the peaceful surroundings of the monasteries, it is such a wonderful movie, you do feel curious about their path to that place. Wonderful in suspense, wonderful in showing peace and wonderful in showing heroism. This director is great, it does not mean anything that it did not get an Oscar, just read the last names of the oscar owners. They would not give it to Beauvois. Rose.

James van Maanen, said...

Thanks Anonymous/Rose. But I am not sure what the last name of the Oscar owners indicates. The French have won Oscars in the past and will do so again, I'm sure. This year was a particularly odd mix of nominees (and winner). But as you say, the movie is wonderful, win or no.