Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Review: Des hommes et des dieux/Of Gods and Men

Des hommes et des dieux/Of Gods and Men (2010, Xavier Beauvois)

In this day and age of great tension between cultures which dominate the western world and those that flourish in the Arab world (a silly term, if you ask me. Do I live in the ‘White world’?...), it seems reasonable to explore the depths, points of contention, and complexities which make up this rivalry. The historical wrongdoings perpetrated by a number of European states would be a decent place to start. I stress the word ‘states’ here and avoid the term ‘nations’ or ‘people’ because I do not think those would apply entirely. Ethnocentrism could be another. There can be hundreds of reasons, and in the worst case scenarios, they drive blind hatred. Hate on one side, hate on both sides. When certain people gain the means to express said hatred and put their words into actions, that is when the situations becomes dangerous. 

This is the nature of the catalyst which sets the plot of Xavier Beauvoi’s Des hommes et des dieux into motion. The story is inspired by real events during the Algerian civil war which began in 1991. A group of Catholic monks dwell in an unglamorous building they use to study and to pray. They, along with Muslim members of the community, tend to the beautiful garden outside to grow food. One of them, Luc (Michael Lonsdale) is a doctor who accepts patients, for services free of charge. Their lives intersect with those of the community in total peace and harmony, just as it should be between  neighbours of good standing. However, the upheaval spreads across the country and eventually comes knocking at the door of the monastery in the shape of armed radical Muslims who demand that their wounded be taken care of. Christian (Lambert Wilson), the pseudo head monk, deals with the situation candidly enough, seeing the armed band off on their way and into the night. But little doubt remains about the possibility of other, less lenient and understanding rebels intruding on their peaceful existence. Government representatives even start to visit and strongly suggest that the monks return to France. The choice between serving the community as best they can until the bitter end or fleeing to return to safety in France becomes the question of the day, a question for which, depending on what they decide, can lead to their death.

After watching this movie, something I did with a friend instead of spending 3 ½ hours in front of the Oscar award show, I was reassured by the fact that it captured the Grand Jury prize at last year’s Cannes film festival. They tend to have decent taste and rewarding a film of Des hommes et des dieux's calibre is a testament to how sometimes award ceremonies make the interesting decisions. On the surface level, the plot synopsis posed some potential problems. That is not say the subject matter did not interest the reviewer. On the contrary, a familiarity with the countries of northern Africa and the topicality, in some respects, of the plot’s themes meant the potential for greatness were definitely present. But unless one is discussing the Independent Spirit Awards or something along those lines, oftentimes and award winning movie, particularly one heavy on the drama, can be quite 'showy.' Other than a remote few missteps from director Xavier Beauvois and screenwriter Étienne Comar, Des hommes et des dieux is a near perfect film. From the pacing, the editing, the acting, and mise-en scène (2 and a half years into the blogging business and I believe that is the first time I use the term even though I am fluent in French), virtually everything hits the right beats and tones. 

The most striking aspect is the character development among the monks. What the audience learns about them is intimately linked to their relationship among themselves, which is fascinating enough, but also through the ties which bind them to the Muslim community, and finally the mounting pressures exercised by intolerable violence coming from the outside. There are no Eves's in their house, but the group resembled a bunch of Adam’s living among the famous biblical garden. They do, in fact, have a garden. It is, in fact, a beautiful little region of Algeria. Lastly, and certainly not least, there is indeed, a snake which comes between them and their personal mission. In the case of Des hommes et des dieux, the snake is not represented by the armed militias, but rather a sense of fear which has meddled with their sense of noble duty. The temptation to bite for some is strong, with the principles arguments on both sides summarized as: leaving goes against what they arrived in Algeria to do, but how useful are they if the militia slaughters them all? The resulting scenes are fascinating, with the monks, people gifted with very calm passive demeanours, debate about the potential risks they incur by opting to stay and the futility of the mission if they choose repatriation. Each monk’s personality slowly emerges with tension rising in its own subtle and less subtle ways,

With so much happening under the characters skins, the fact that the movie is 2 hours long becomes an afterthought. Beauvois paces his scenes slowly, lending the audience enough time to observe the monks and the world they adopted as home. Handeld and steady cam are utilized, both conscious that the story and characters should tell the story, less so the camera lens. There are early scenes detailing the everyday activities of the monks amongst themselves and within the wider community with whom they share produce and love. When the trouble starts brewing, the filmmakers make the unique choice by inserting a number of scenes which feature the religious group performing chants. Rather than making attempts at being artsy or persisting with some variety of documentary-style filmmaking, the songs serve in fact as venues for the monks to express their innermost thoughts and feelings on the dangerous developments that have practically, but not yet entirely engulfed them. It is a different and even powerful way to assist in the storytelling and, for that reason, almost turns Des hommes et des  dieux into a musical. The author acknowledges that this is not what Xavier Beauvois and his team intended, but there is sufficient evidence to venture building a case. 

Michael Lonsdale is one of the major co-stars of the film. Need there be any further arguments which attest to the quality of the acting? It shall not be denied that I am a long standing admirer of the great French actor, who has provided years, decades even of solid performances. The movies this man has acted in…putting it into words is rather difficult. Is it even possible to claim that after everything he has done, after all the characters he has played, that Des hommes et des dieux is the film in which he delivers his best work? Certainly someone can make a legitimate case for that, I am perhaps not as confident to engage in the exercise. The character of Luc, perhaps to be expected given the actor who portrays him, is the most charismatic of the bunch. It is a quiet charisma however (Lonsdale is not spring chicken), coupled with a wisdom that sets him apart from most of his fellow deity worshipers, even though he remains quite close to all of them.  Lambert Wilson, as Christian, is the character who struggles the most with the decision that needs to be taken. He knows that staying would be nobler, and therefore must find intelligent, passionate ways to convince those who believe otherwise. While not as immediately memorable as Lonsdale, Wilson is very good too. On a final note, I simply want to express some admiration for Jacques Herlin, who portrays Amédée, the eldest, quietest, shortest of the monks. Funny, perceptive, brave on the rare occasions when he speaks, Herlin is tremendous fun to watch.

Des hommes et des dieux is benefitting from excellent word of mouth comments and online reviews. It is a movie that, unsurprisingly, will not wreak havoc at the box-office in North America, but it can be expected that serious film buffs will slowly but surely seek it out as the years go by and its accessibility increases with a DVD and Blu-ray release.


Jack L said...

Excellent review!
I really loved this film, I watched it at the exact same time it was receiving the best Picture Award at the Cesar and I'm glad I did, it really is a great film. It manages to be different without being pretentious.
I thought Lambert Wilson was excellent as well...
Very well written review.

edgarchaput said...

@Jack: Thanks for your suppotr.

I have not seen any other Lambert Wilson films, not to my knowledge at least. Any suggestions?

Jack L said...

I haven't seen any other Lambert Wilson films but I have heard very positive things about one called L'Hiver 54 (http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hiver_54,_l%27abb%C3%A9_Pierre_%28film%29)
I really want to see that one as he impressed me with his performance in Des Hommes et Des Dieux but it's rather hard to find...
If you can find it I'm sure you'd enjoy it!