Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Of Gods and Men

Like Bridesmaids, Of Gods and Men opened in Winnipeg this past weekend. But where 200 people ‘joined’ me at the cinema yesterday to see a silly comedy, only 15 people ‘joined’ me today to watch a profound and exquisite work of cinematic art. Was I surprised? Of course not. Sigh.

Of Gods and Men, directed by Xavier Beauvois, tells the true story of nine French monks living in a monastery in the mountains of Algeria who get caught up in the Algerian Civil War in 1996. The monks have a very close relationship with their Arab neighbours and the local Muslim leaders. They provide medical help, supply needed clothing, and take part in Islamic worship. When the local village and monastery are threatened first by ‘terrorists’ and then by the Algerian army, the monks have to decide wether to stay and support their neighbours or take the safer path and return to France or move to another part of Africa.

Of Gods and Men does a marvelous job of conveying life in the monastery. The entire film is paced like that life. At first it is a slow relaxed pace, for it is a simple life of study, work and serving the poor among whom the monks live. The slow pace continues throughout the film but the relaxed atmosphere is soon replaced by one of constant tension, created by the escalating violence around the monks and the daily waiting and agonizing decision-making. In the midst of it all is one beautiful scene after another.

But what makes Of Gods and Men special is the way it depicts Christianity (and specifically Catholicism) in an almost entirely positive light. It does this by presenting a group of men whose idea of following Jesus is to serve others, help the poor and the sick, show compassion on all around them (whether they are considered friends or enemies), resist all offers of armed protection and forgive those who threaten their lives. No wonder such a Christianity is portrayed positively (a portrayal capable of winning awards at Cannes)! What kind of twisted perverted type of Christianity is this anyway??

Of Gods and Men nevertheless presents a very human portrait of the nine monks, with all their flaws exposed along with their profound love for each other and those around them. At the same time, the film goes so far as to humanize the Islamic extremists (‘terrorists’), partly through the humanizing actions of the monks towards them. And while the film centers entirely on the Catholic monks and their faith, it also shows a clear appreciation for Islam.

When the incredible rarity of the above is added to flawless acting (particularly by lead actors Lambert Wilson and Michael Lonsdale) and great cinematography, I am willing to forgive almost anything on the way to giving Of Gods and Men ****. What I am forgiving is the lack of depth to the dialogue and decision-making of the monks. But really, in a film in which about 90% of the dialogue is religious, how can I possibly complain about such a trivial detail. My mug is up and full of the finest java out there. Technically this is a 2010 film but given its May release in Winnipeg, I think I am justified in putting it in my top ten of 2011, which is assured.

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