Human, All Too Human: Of Gods And Men

Human, All Too Human: Of Gods And Men

Static Mass Rating: 4/5
Artificial Eye 

Release date: April 11th 2011
Certificate (UK): 15
Running time: 121 minutes
Original language: French/Arabic with English subtitles

Director: Xavier Beauvois

Cast: Lambert Wilson, Michael Lonsdale, Olivier Rabourdin, Philippe Laudenbach, Jacques Herlin, Loic Pichon, Xavier Maly, Jean-Marie Frin, Abdelhafid Metalsi, Sabrina Ouazani, Abdellah Moundy, Olivier Perrier

France craves a draught of religious and cultural reconciliation which is why, claims director Xavier Beauvois, the award-wining Of Gods and Men has been such a popular and critical success in his divided homeland.

The French have a troubled history with Islam which has inevitably outlasted secession with North African colonies. In 2010 and ’11 it is the Burqa ban kidnapping column inches in Le Monde; it was fundamentalist terrorism in Algeria that stole the headlines in 1996, when the true events of Beauvois’ film began to unfold and France found itself unexpectedly embroiled in the political disorder left behind its imperial adventures.

Of Gods And Men

Set in and around a French Catholic monastery in the luminescent Algerian countryside, Of Gods and Men begins by meting out a Trappist brew of social cooperation and fellowship to quench the national thirst for fraternité, getting us on message with some amiable commerce between the monks- who provide medical care, grow produce and even dispense relationship advice- and poor locals who gratefully receive it.

At least three generations old, this missionary outpost has become the “branch” on which the indigenous community sits, as one impassioned resident declares. They are Islamic but the spirit of mutual generosity and friendship prevails against any possibility of conflict on religious or cultural grounds. From the one hand, conciliatory verses are sung at a Khatna to which all of the monks are invited (“We make no division between any of His messengers”); and from the other, Abbot Christian studies the Qu’ ran.

When militants attack the region, the Muslim elders insist that the terrorists’ creed is an abhorrent distortion of the scripture. So far, so unproblematic. Different faiths can get along just fine, and the obdurate extremists don’t like it. We here who believe in dignity, freedom and respect are the good guys and those guys over there with the machine guns and murderous scowls are- can you guess it, boys and girls?- the naughty ones. It’s not exactly a controversial message.

Of Gods And Men

If the sense of the film alights at this, which arguably it does, it can probably be said to achieve what Beauvois hopes: to rally support for understanding and compassion across cultural divisions. But in this case it would also be necessary to say that it is a sentimental pantomime, with the locals cast as mere extras for sanctimonious Christians to play charity on.

The plot drives on to the distant tearing sound of critical opinion dividing. A fatal raid on Croatian workers nearby signals the escalation of conflict, and the government presses the monks to leave with rising impatience. It is only a matter of time, they say, before the militants make use of such an obvious and incendiary target to further their ambitions.

Should they endanger their lives to remain, in solidarity with their neighbours? “A Good shepherd”, as one says, “does not abandon his flock to the wolves.” Another proposes to “withdraw slowly”, with some contemporary political undertones. Or perhaps they ought to make a rapid exit after all? By staying they may do more harm than good.

Of Gods And Men

And beyond these pragmatic considerations lie the personal and theological interests of the group. Between their situation and the crucifixion story there is an unmistakable parallel. Thoughts of martyrdom, of men as gods and gods as men, insidiously arise.

The final act follows their discussions and private meditations on these and other such exalted themes. Depending on whether you think the film takes place outside or inside of religion, this finale either explores some of the more ignoble motivations of piety, or it panegyrically chronicles the trials of sainthood in order to further an asinine self-congratulating message of Christian- and, tangentially, French- virtues.

The movie crescendos with a “last supper” scene, in which the eight sit down together to wine and a tape recording of the (perhaps not insignificantly secular) overture to Swan Lake. The camera studies their silent features as the music plunges and soars. Joy, sorrow, fear and even irony pass through their expressions. Crowning the ambiguity of the film, it is has attracted both admiration and mockery; and despite some of my misgivings there were moments during this extended tableau when I couldn’t suppress a tear.

Of Gods And Men

So Of Gods and Men could be an agnostic drama about the trembling convictions and spiritual vanity of devout men coming to terms with their earthliness in the face of death and the divine. But almost equally it might just be a smug, tendentious recapitulation of the Christian myth.

The problem is that it would look almost exactly the same were it the kind of film you might be forced to watch in RE or an ingeniously subtle and intelligent drama about the psychology of religion. How are we to decide? It’s about Trappist monks for God’s sake! They barely speak! One should have faith, I suppose.

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