Ooh la la it’s another Casta La Vista Tag Team Review. For our viewing delight this time around we watch Of Gods and Men, a French film that has recently found out it is NOT in the running for the best foreign language film award at this year’s Oscars (sacre bleu!). We’ve both seen it and hopefully our words below will tell you whether or not that is a good or bad thing.
Chris M is in Blue, Chris W is in Green. Enjoy!
What is it with these boring films all coming out at the moment? First we have a film about a guy being stuck with a rock, then we have a story about a member of the Royal Family who has a stammer and now we’re treated to a movie about a bunch of monks in Algeria. Whoop de do. Seemingly in an effort to compound the boring image of this film even further; there’s no soundtrack, it’s in French, it’s quite long clocking in at two hours and next to nothing happens!
Quite in spite of (or maybe because of) the above; this film is bloody brilliant. I’m not exaggerating when I see that next to nothing happens in the first twenty minutes and even then the actual “incident” only ever comes in two or three minute scenes interspersed sparingly throughout the film’s duration. The primary focus of the film lies with eight monks who live in a small community in rural Algeria who have a symbiotic relationship with the local Muslim population; a relationship which is disrupted when extremist militant Muslims move in wanting to take advantage of the monks and their resources. Thing is though, despite this being the obvious driving action behind the film’s story; it only ever rears its ugly head once in a while and the real problem the monks have to deal with is the fear of what might happen to them – wrestling with the question of whether or not they should leave their monastery behind.
Of Gods and Men’s greatest strength in my eyes is in its pacing. Sure it may seem very slow but the film moves deliberately between six or so of the eight monks with enough frequency for you to really get a feel of who each one is and what drives them by its climax. It’s quite telling that you can be back in a room with all eight monks sat in the same positions around a table as they were an hour earlier, having the exact same conversation no less, and in no way is it any less interesting, intense or vital as it was previously. I don’t know if I’ve ever enjoyed a film so much where so little seems to happen.
As we’ve discussed before, there is much to be said in the telling of a “true” story. I had an inkling that the events were inspired by true occurrences throughout, but it was only in the written epilogue that my suspicions were confirmed. In light of the above comments regarding the pitch perfect pacing of the movie I’d be hesitant in suggesting that any of the content be cut purely to reduce its length, but it did seem to me that there were two absolutely perfect instances in which the film could have ended five or ten minutes earlier than it did which perhaps would have left the story on a more poignant note. But I guess that it really boils down to whether the intention of the filmmaker was to recount a tale of fact, or to tell an interesting story. In this case it seems to have been the former, but the emotional response I had to both of these two aforementioned incidents indicate to me that the intention should have been the latter; I think I would have walked away more affected without such definite closure.
Of Gods and Men is a brilliant film and was well worthy to be France’s submission for the best foreign language film at the Oscars, despite its failing. If the glut of early year blockbusters isn’t floating your boat right now and you’re in the mood for something a little more measured, I would heavily recommend seeking it out.
I approached Of Gods and Men from a pessimistic position. Religion isn’t exactly a subject matter that leaves a pleasant taste in my mouth and the prospect of seeing a film in which two belief systems come face to face didn’t exactly set my heart a flutter.
How pleasing it was then to watch Xavier Beauvois’ film and find myself not only emotionally connected to the plight of these French Monks, but also more aware of the effect religion can have on local communities and the compassion and humanity that these people can offer.
Of Gods and Men is a hard film to watch in many respects because so little is offered up on screen. Indeed the majority of the film focuses on the day to day activities of the monks and the conversations and processes that they go through routinely. From the chapel to the garden, daily meal times and round table meetings, it is quickly established that perhaps what gives these men the strength to survive the threat from outside is their focus and dedication to their own lifestyle.
That is not to say however that the monks are the typical ‘flock’ of religious lore. Whilst the visual imagery of the film throws up comparisons to livestock, these French monks often differ in opinion to one another. They have moments of selfishness and cowardice. They are afraid and argumentative. They are individuals who all have their own ideas for how to deal with the threat of the Muslim extremists, and who at one point or another have to come to terms with the leadership structure that exists within their own community.
Whether Head Monk Christian (His name is Christian. I wasn’t labelling him a Christian. Although he is a Christian. Hope I cleared that up.) is motivated by guilt, pride, honour or sheer stubbornness in staying at the Monastery, the important thing is that he is in charge. He calls the shots.
Whilst it is rewarding to see these relationships strengthened by the end of the film, the joy of the movie comes from watching it happen, as each monk shows their true self to the audience, either behind closed doors or in a moment of fear or panic in front of the others.
And it is this fear and panic that percolates through the entire movie. It would be hard to describe Of Gods and Men as a particularly exciting movie, and yet at any point there is a sense that any danger could be lurking outside; the extremists that know the monks stand between them and the village they defend; the Government officials who want to suppress the communities political power; the military men who despise the compassion and attention the monks give to the extremists; any and all of these groups pose an immediate threat to the Monastery and the local villagers that they provide aid for.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of the film is that by the time the credits roll audiences will be unsure of whether or not the Monks are happy to have met their fate, or simply relieved that their journey did not see them lose their dignity or belief in the human condition by being used as pawns in a war they wanted nothing to do with.
A film worth watching and a story worth telling.