OF GODS AND MEN (Xavier Beauvois, 2011)
When you want to see a movie that you already know the ending to, you anticipate that the film will analyze and observe the things that happened before the characters meet that end. OF GODS AND MEN is a film about martyrs – if you look into the story at all, you’ll find out this fact very quickly. So Xavier Beauvois has a very difficult task of humanizing these monks and observing what they must of thought about in those last days. The film succeeds halfheartedly. Like last year’s The Secret in their Eyes, the subject of the film is pretty interesting in and of itself. However, the director translates the story to screen so blandly it feels almost like a classic Hollywood movie. There are little to no risks in telling the story of this film. There’s not a whole lot of subtext – everything about the story feels very straightforward. They’re doubtful until they’re not about the choice they are going to make. They question the choice they are going to make. They feel self important even though the director abandons how altruistic they actually are to the community once they have the big dilemma of “should I stay of should I go?” I never quite felt that these monks had that big of an impact on this town. If only the director/screenwriter would have showed us some of their dirty work, but all the work they do show seems to be relegated to only one of the eight monks and that is the doctor monk. What religious advantages do these eight monks give to the town? There is barely any time spent on this. For the majority of the film, the monks dwell on their self importance in the town. Apparently (I wouldn’t know by the film) if the monks left, the town would be in big trouble. And the weight of their dilemma is given the majority of the screentime. Perhaps I’m wrong, but in the story of Christ – wasn’t it not how he died, but what he did before he died which made him a admirable and good person? Why do Christians think so much of death and not much of the celebration of one’s life? OF GODS AND MEN falls into the similar trap of THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, both films completely ignore the absolute power of a good martyr film like THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC or even MILK because we’re watching the physical/mental torture of a being/beings that we MUST assume to be good because they’re Christians. Whatever. Jesus matters to me because he was a Godly presence speaking to his people. I’m sure these monks would matter to me if I knew more about their accomplishments.
The film isn’t without merit though. Even though only two characters are given full development, the entire ensemble does a phenomenal job with their characters. Lambert Wilson’s and Michael Lonsdale’s characters are the two that are most developed and by turn, they also give the most powerful performances. The cinematography is quite subtle – not flashy at all – and yet it swept me off my feet into the atmosphere of the film’s setting. Even though most of the film’s ideas and themes are surface level, the story is still quite powerful. I was ultimately moved by their plight and what they went through when I wasn’t questioning why their decision really mattered in the end. There are some interesting conversations about faith, love, death, and of the morality of monks that were rather insightful. Also, this film serves as a excellent companion piece to WHITE MATERIAL. Where as OF GODS AND MEN is about religious people living in a revolting land, WHITE MATERIAL is about capitalists living in a revolting land. But the similarities stop there – WHITE MATERIAL goes deep into its subject, exploring sacrifice and the political climate of its setting in graphic and sometimes disturbing detail. OF GODS AND MEN might as well be PG rated.