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Of Gods And Men

“You are gods, and all of you are children of the Most High. But you shall die like men and fall like one of the princes.”

So opens Of Gods And Men and what follows is the interesting fleshing out of an idea: the struggle to reconcile faith in the face of certain death at the hands of amok fundamentalists raging violent terror. We know, as the film progresses, where we’re (be)heading, such are the film’s real-life origins (in 1996, seven French monks from an Algerian monastery were kidnapped and later found murdered and beheaded). So, the focus of the film is the interlude, during which much musing is done by the monks in question upon the possibility of leaving and saving themselves or adhering to their God-given responsibilities and facing a certain and ghastly fate.

We are slowed to the gentle pace of proceedings: we experience day-to-day rituals in this mountain-summit environment of becalmed (though somewhat increasingly fraught) contemplation, as an initially unseen storm rages beyond the walls. All vacillations are kept to spoken deliberations and the dread worn in querulous faces. The film is well measured – the waiting game is agonising and infuriating in equal measure: you are as ambivalent as the abbot habitues. To leave is mortally the only sensible option, and yet to observe the basis of their entire existence demands that they stay and face the impending horror.

Which we are left in no uncertain terms about: we watch as Croatian construction workers are senselessly and deplorably offed by the jihadists. So the film works on two key, parallel levels: as a gut-wrenching thriller and as an account of the deliberations of those faced with a quandary which, in the end, prompts much in the way of theological extrapolations and the realisation that such discussions (the performances are well situated and distinct: the ardently undeterred; the tentative but assiduous; the wavering; the teetering etc) are mere observations, intellectual machinations tethered to earthly life, precluding the inevitable.

Moving further into the film, the Government haughtily intervenes and pushes for the monks to return en masse to France; the army gets wind of their allowing (and therefore, from their point of view, approving terrorism) wounded fundamentalists to receive medical attention, even though to do otherwise would oppose their code. The tide is turning and chaos begins to hold sway as the film slowly ratchets the suspense. You care about these well-drawn characters and their respective plights: this, though, being a film firmly rejecting notions of individualism. (And yet, the film begs you to cheer on the possibility that a rebel monk might flee in the night. I suppose that’s a directly secular response.)

There is a wonderful scene, a heart-stopping interlude, involving the arrival at the temple of the gun-toting aggressors with a demand for medicinal supplies. There is an intense, volatile pervasion which is quickly and surprisingly offset amidst an unlikely accord, of sorts. A warning that feels like a moment of understanding: though it’s very much a red-herring, it’s a majestically poised piece of cinema: one of those moments from which, retrospectively, the whole film pivots and which muddies issues in an intriguing manner. The representation here of the fundamentalists is, you could argue, somewhat sympathetic: they are both capable of human gestures and of instinctive rapprochements. The national forces meant to repel these murderous hordes are portrayed far less flatteringly.

The intention is clear, if a little over-emphasised, and it works, but to what end? There seems little point in initiating the prospect of a reprieve, so we are given the option of potentially supposing: Here are two sets of people that are equally victims of their beliefs – and those we side with are doomed to admirable but devastating defeat. Of Gods And Men is, at the very least, opportunity for debate. It is not didactic but it feels imploring, and strongly hints at no less than the fall of man. It champions a collective cause in the face of annihilation. It is very much a lonely trumpet sounding across a lost battlefield.

As the local increasingly unavoidable body-count mounts (quiet aftermath of an attack on a car by the road, seen POV from a monk’s passing car), the fraternity finally makes a decision that feels like absolutely the right one, in any case, for both human and cinematic reasons. The film is geared towards the ultimate in bittersweet conclusions and a tremendous final reel that caps a powerful and involving theological/philosophical fable.

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Mary Gilbert
    May 5, 2011 at 5:59 pm

    Excellent review Lee of a film that has taken France by storm. Despite my complete lack of religious belief I found the film incredibly moving in particular the scenes towards the end which as you say provide a tremendous final reel. I liked the ways the little differences between the monks’ personalities were developed with some extraordinarily sensitive and detailed acting. For example when Michael Lonsdale’s character gives a little moue of pleasure at the prospect of serving some really good wine. The last supper worked wonderfully with its counterpoint of the simplicity of the meal against the lushness of the ballet music. Glad we were spared the final solution though – the sight of the old men guiding each other to their deaths and eventually fading into the snow in total silence was almost unbearable but it provided a moving ending to a powerful and unusual film. It didn’t leave the audience with much hope though – believer or atheist.

    • May 6, 2011 at 3:08 pm

      Thank you, Mary. Your comments reveal the aspects I didn’t mention and most likely should’ve: the performances in particular. I didn’t want to ramble but Lonsdale in particular is superb. I could’ve at least said as much…
      The snow scene towards the end is, as you say, extremely moving and a fitting way to culminate such a work. And I agree: the film does not leave much hope. It’s a devastating piece of work, and a brave one. Yet even now part of me wishes one of them, just one, had faltered and returned to France…perhaps a follow-up might’ve been in order? The Rueful Lapse?

  2. May 6, 2011 at 1:58 pm

    Excellent review Lee. I second Mary on that. This was a film already very much on my radar and you really do encourage me to get a copy. Such an antidote to the Michael Mann style crap that seems so much of what’s in the multiplexes.

    • May 6, 2011 at 3:11 pm

      Thanks, Max. Please do watch it – it’s certainly much better than Public Enemies. Mind you, it’s much better than the vast majority of films.

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