Sunday, January 23, 2011

Of Gods and Men (2010)

This based on true events story of a group of Trappist monks in rural Algeria is incredibly haunting and will leave you nailed to your seat long after the credits roll. It may be a little too sentimental and unsubtle to the point where it hamers in its centrepiece scene with an elaborate cinematic trick, but it is a brilliant film from beginning to the truly exceptional finale.

In a remote impoverished part of the Atlas Mountains, a community lives in perfect harmony. The lines have blurred between the seemingly opposing sides (French monks in a lifetime of devotion to their religion and the local moderate Muslim population), in that they both feature in each other's lives and are essential for each other's sustenance (both material and psychological) and survival. However, the differences between these two groups are cherished - their reverence for each other forms the basis of the dilemma that drives the story.

The head monk, Christian (Lambert Wilson - so far removed from his Merovingian character from the Matrix franchise), reads Koran and is making sure to learn Arabic to better understand the environment that he lives in. Which also helps to put his faith in context - he openly acknowledges both religions' similarities and differences and tries to find comomn ground which he is adamant that exists. A little too idealistic this may be, but it is a strong and bold statement nonetheless.

This perfect harmony (with incredibly beautiful Moroccan background where it was shot) is about to derail: the extremists have increased their attacks and the violence is spreading out of the urban areas and into the countryside. The first sign of the inevitable conflict is when a group of Croatian construction workers are killed by a group of extremists. The monks now face the dilemma of whether to leave and potentially save their lives, or stay and face the inevitable. After much deliberation (cowardice vs. martyrdom, personal responsibility vs. communal responsibility), they stay put.

When the extremists appear at their doorstep, Christian stands his ground (his face showing every sign of terror that is brewing inside - these monks devote their lives to live humbly and this type of violence or confrontation is more alien to them than the Arabic text that they inscribed on the wall of their monastery). The extremists need a doctor and they want to take Luc (an incredible performance by Michael Lonsdale) away, but Christian won't allow that and insinuates that if and when they need the ailing Luc, they can bring their wounded to the monastery.

The military, who were up to that point very supportive of the monks despite thei suicidal decision, now turn their back against them - the monks and the community they serve are left to their own means for survival. The last straw for the military is drawn when Christian is seen praying over the corpse of the leader of the extremists in the army morgue. Soon, the military begins raiding the monastery and the village - the aim is no longer to convince the monks to leave, but to intimidate them. What do the monks do?

Knowing that their end is imminent at the hands of either side, the monks have one last supper. And it is here that many will either love or loathe the film. The almost documentary style throughout, with minimal dialogue, is replaced by an overtly sentimental, yet incredibly powerful scene. Not a dry eye in the room, including those of yours truly.

The monks live a very controlled life - everything is ritualistic, done to perfection. Very pure and lacking subtlety - each day blends into the next and their life just goes on. The end is too far away, because they believe this devotion is eternal just like what they devote their lives is meant to be. But, they break the tradition when they realize praying, faith, and this devotion becomes a myth when compared to what they are facing. This realisation releases them from bondage and Luc brings out two bottles of wine and puts Tchaikovsky's Grand Theme from 'Swan Lake' on an old tape player. Music soars, breaking the fourth wall, and the statuesque expressions of monks break into heartbreaking smiles, and then tears begin rolling down their faces. You may hate the lack of subtlety, but there is no denying the power of this scene. It simply floored me.

Of Gods and Men is slow, methodical, but a brillianrly acted film that quietly absorbs you in and leaves you pondering for hours as to how or if this could all have been avoided. With the minor exception of the villagers (and a few select characters that we came to know) disappearing after the first hour, Of Gods and Men is a fantastic achievement. Watch it in tandem with last year's similarly-themed White Material and the mother-of-all representations of post-colonial Africa, The Battle of Algiers - a film that gets more poignant every passing year.

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