FEBRUARY 10, 2011
Of Gods and Men
Sony Pictures Classics
A French film called Of Gods and Men has had an unusual effect in France. The subject is basically factual—the abduction and murder of seven monks from the Tibhirine monastery in Algeria in 1996, apparently by Algerian dissidents. Most of the picture takes place during the time when the monks decide whether to stay or leave after the dissidents have ordered them to go.
The press reports that the picture has been a success in France, and the general reaction in editorials has been sobering. For instance, Le Monde said: “The monks of Tibhirine incarnate everything that the public, from the left to the right, no longer finds in society,” and then enumerated the monks’ virtues. L’Express said that this film “offers a magnificent response to terrorists, as to soldiers, while showing the torments of those who refuse the logic of war.” The response to the picture obviously implies discomfiting memories of France’s struggle in Algeria during the 1950s. It is all the more remarkable because the monks themselves never utter a word about politics.
Xavier Beauvois, the director, who collaborated with Etienne Comar on the screenplay, was interested in spiritual inquiry and has made the best such film since Alain Cavalier’s Thérèse in 1986. That both films are Catholic seems to mean only that the film-makers were Catholic and that Catholicism offers—no more constantly than other faiths but certainly dramatically—agons of particular stress. Beauvois and Comar have tempered the drama with meditation: the film takes its time—but it is its time, its figurative room for thought and honesty and, of course, prayer. The result is a rare cinematic experience, whatever the viewer’s faith or lack of it. The film lets us dwell for two hours within the minds and spirits of some unusual men.
The old French monastery is located in a poor village in the Algerian mountains. The monks have not been sent here to proselytize but to lead religious lives, which includes help of every kind to the villagers. For chief instance, the oldest monk, Luc, is a doctor or at least practices simple medicine, with at least one hundred patients a day. Food and friendship are shared. Much of the monks’ time is naturally spent in religion, including the singing of some venerable medieval music, which, together with prayer, seems the base of their reason for being.
Reports come to them, have been coming for some time, of horrendous violence against “liberal” Muslims committed by the ultra-rightist Muslim faction, which does not hesitate, for instance, to murder two teenage girls for reasons of conduct and dress. A squad of those rightists visits the monastery and warns the monks to leave because they are imperial remnants. The abbot converses calmly with the leader and even quotes the Koran to him as evidence of the monks’ good will. The dissidents are unimpressed. The Algerian army, too, which is in poor repute locally, is worried about the monks. An officer visits the monastery with the same request that they leave, because the military is not able to protect them. More: the abbot is summoned to a government office where again the monks are asked to leave by an obviously frightened official. They do not go.
Or at least they are making up their minds. The abbot, named Christian, knows from the start what he wants to do—to stay and fulfill his religious life and humane mission—but his brothers must decide for themselves, then vote. There is, as far as we can see, no outright fear in them, but there are varying assessments of the wisdom, of the utility to their vocation, of staying or leaving.
The center, the central strength, of the group is the abbot. Christian is played by Lambert Wilson, known from several sorts of films, who gives here an extraordinarily quiet and deep performance. Christian is a man who knows who he is and why. In him there is nothing of the cinematic priest, availably wise. He is a thoughtful man whose thought has evolved into illuminating faith. He transforms this film from one more religioso lozenge into a phenomenon of conviction.
Eventually, while the life of the monastery goes on and Christian simply continues to be himself, his brothers come to agree with him. The key moment in this epic of resolve is one evening at their refectory table when the camera simply moves from one face to another, then back again, without a word being spoken, as they agree to stay. That moment is the justification of their lives and, more importantly, of their belief.
At last we see the monks being taken prisoner and being abducted by the dissidents. We do not see the seven decapitated bodies that were eventually discovered.
The empathic cinematographer, Caroline Champetier, uses shadows in her compositions to suggest that what we see, which is graphic enough, is also taking place in a less literal world. All of the actors in the other roles deal justly with them, and a special word must go to Michael Lonsdale, veteran of so many sophisticated French and British films, who is here warm and simple as the aged Luc.
Two questions. Why is the second word of the title in the plural? Why, when the monks are seated around the table in their climactic scene and the music swells orchestrally as they remain silent, did the director choose an excerpt from Swan Lake? It’s a thrilling passage, but it isn’t hard to think of music that would be at least equally thrilling and more appropriate.
Still, Beauvois and Comar have faced a great challenge and have succeeded. Beauvois has also acted in several films, and he evidently has a prime endowment: he can envision what he wants to see before he brings it into being. What he has made is less an ode to courage than to clarity. The picture stands, even for the non-religious, as a memento of light. It is impossible for us to read anything these days—news, poetry, fiction—without encountering plaints, quite comprehensible, about the muddiness of contemporary life. Sickeningly harsh though the end of this story is, it is an account of a road to certainty. I doubt that any of these monks welcomed the assassins’ bullets, but at least they knew why they were there.
Persuasive directorial talent keeps coming along. In the past months, quite apart from American work, films have arrived from Norway, the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, Romania, South Korea, and Israel that not only are compelling in themselves; they hearten hopes for film in general despite world conditions.
Another now comes from Argentina. Pablo Trapero’s Carancho is essentially a familiar film, but it is handled with such assurance that it signals the arrival of another genuine talent. “Carancho” means vulture in Spanish—a word used in Argentina to signify what we would call an ambulance-chasing lawyer. Argentina has a high rate of automobile accidents, and there is a whole society of lawyers and dodgy insurance companies who feast on this fact. Trapero has slashed into this stratum of Buenos Aires life with skill and very grim humor.
The principal characters are a young female doctor who works on ambulances and a shadowy lawyer who is both a carancho and an attractive man. The screenplay, written by Trapero and three others, is full of inevitabilities—schemes and counter-schemes, legal maneuvers, the beginning of an affair and its trials, violence of several kinds. The details of the doctor-lawyer romance soon become less important than the texture of the slick, swift-moving world in which they live. The pace of the film is perfectly articulated and generally exciting.
I don’t know if Trapero has ever seen any of Sidney Lumet’s films about New York and its buzzing substrata—Prince of the City, for instance—but Carancho has the same air of familiarity, anger, and reluctant awe. Trapero is helped by a gift of understatement. Instance: the lawyer and the doctor are talking pleasantly when they meet, and he says he would like to kiss her. Laughingly, she says no. Cut to a passionate kiss in her apartment. Throughout, Trapero leaves out the transitional material that, figuratively, we have already seen.
Martina Gusman plays the doctor with a good grip on both professional competence and unostentatious charm. But, in a sense, the film relies on Ricardo Darín’s performance as the lawyer. Darín, in his fifties, has an immediacy without effort that is a reminder of Spencer Tracy. We know from the beginning, because he tells us, that the lawyer is an operator. As is often true of roguish characters, this only makes us more interested. Darín is a born film actor—he conveys much more than he says.
Carancho is far from a work of stunning originality or stature. But Trapero is so fervent about his concern and so fluent in opening it all up before us that we almost welcome its tinge of familiarity. He knows how to make a film cleverly, which means in this case that it is welcome even while, essentially, we recognize it.
Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic. This article ran in the March 3, 2011, issue of the magazine.