Saturday, April 30, 2011

Of Gods and Men (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Of Gods and Men

   "Of Gods and Men," the critically acclaimed film by Xavier Beauvois focuses on the true story of a group of trappist monks in Algeria who were kidnapped and killed by Islamic terrorists in 1996. Luc (Michael Lonsdale) is a doctor that takes care of the many inhabitants around the countryside in a local monastery. Most of them are Muslim. 
   Virtually more than a quarter of the film details the harmony between Christians and Muslims. The setting is indeed pastoral and peaceful, recalling the bright yellows and pinks of a Botticelli Primavera masterpiece. The monks hover in groups like austere white doves, warbling their chants and pondering scripture. Then travel down the cliff a bit and we see what looks like an Islamic ritual happening in a Muslim home. An infant yawns and stares into the camera, clearly nonplussed. The camera records events as they are without embellishment.
   The next scene shows a group of islamic militants going after a group of villagers and slashing their throats. 
   Terror has arrived. The monks go on as usual. The monastery becomes like a blue Easter Egg in the midst of fear and hostility. Only the monks are filled with a kind of passive nonviolence. 
   When one of the terrorists come to Luc,he decides to treat him. As a healer, he can do little else. 
The filming is unadorned and formal, very much in the tradition of  von Trotta's "Vision". There is little uncloistered space beyond the monastery walls. As the violence mounts, the monks cling ever more fervently to their candlewax chanting with its words of martyrdom and suffering. By morning, they carry on, filling rich jars with papal honey as the terrorists spill their enemies' honey of blood with murder. Each monk seems to grow understandably more nervous with each passing day. Their faces in closeup  re-emerge from the darkness with various wrinkles that stand out in relief like crisp pages from an Illuminated manuscript. When the monks are shown coupled in ritual along with the terrorists, singing about  holy blood, Sin and regret, they appear a bit crazy. Ritual is everything.
   In one scene, Luc kisses a painting of Christ by Caravagio. It is a sensual and fetishist moment, pushing the envelope and giving the great Luis Bunuel a run for his money.
   Beauvois knows his art history well. Near the film's conclusion, the references are plentiful to the point of seeming self conscious. There is everything in this film from Vermeer in the film's lighting, to a near copy of Da  Vinci and Brueghel in the final Winter scene.
   The film is hypnotic, reflective and rather meditative on the eyes. In only one respect did it lapse into Sin. During the Last Supper scenes, one old monk puts on "Swan Lake" Blasphemy! Since this year's "Black Swan" that music is so heavily preloaded with references that it has lost its sacred credibility  seemed pretentious in the silent settingAnd wait... of course, the monks start weeping. There is no need for this understated and measured film to hit us over the head with such an overbearing ruler as if launched by mad Mother Superior. 
   Despite this demerit, the film remains a stern character study on the monks living in their own Easter Egg of ritual, their own frenzy of silence,  while the hills of Algeria grow increasingly violent.
   Sam Harris would shake his head in stern admonishment.  
   Write Ian at

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