Sunday, September 26, 2010

NYFF Review: Of Gods and Men

Of Gods and Men
Directed By Xavier Beauvois

            In times of great dire or need, the saying goes, people always turn toward religion, God, or something of a greater power. We desire for some meaning, some understanding, or simply some compassion. Yet in Of Gods and Men, Xavier Beauvois’s film following a brotherhood of monks in the greatest of crisis, the passions on both sides have never been higher. As the terror that surrounds these men becomes more desperate, these men only become stronger in their faith, and we feel revitalized by it, desperate not to grab them and cure their situation, but that they may be at peace when the time comes.
            Few films in this year, or any year, will strike such emotional chords as Of Gods and Men does. Mr. Beauvois, an actor originally but has made a splash with his last few films, takes a no-holds-bar approach to his style, and thrusts straight into this monestary in Northern Algeria in 1996. Political chaos is high in the cities below, as Islamic fighter and terrorists scour the land to rid their country of a foreign presence, and the French army strikes back without sympathy for anyone but themselves. And despite what sounds like a violent and brutal film, Mr. Beauvois instead keeps us focused on the monastic life, the daily rituals.
            And with his quiet compositions, neatly ordered like the monastic life itself, the scenes of the brothers simply chanting, farming, and praying, are among the most compassionate in recent memory. The entire film thus slowly draws its tension from the oncoming turmoil that the monks must face. After a group of terrorists break into their monetary in Christmas Eve, the group faces a decision to stay or leave, which becomes more and more complex with each added element. The group, led by Lambert Wilson (you may remember him as that French guy in the Matrix sequels), prays and prays, while continuing to be assaulted from every side about what to do.
            Mr. Beauvois doesn’t let the decision made easy. The few violent moments he does show, he is not afraid to show the horror in true detail, but never assaults you with it, only letting it linger for a moment in the frame, or barely visible on the side. He skips music cues, save for an important Tchaikovsky number near the end, in order to let you sink into their contemplative world, and focus on the decisions as they tussle with what to do.
            Of Gods and Men has a politics agenda, but not one targeted toward the French government, and not one that attacks the Islamic political factions as well. Instead, it is simply about peace and communication. Mr. Beauvois, more than anything, is a humanist director. He enjoys the quiet moments and finds them transformative, which is why they end up on screen in their almost symmetrical compositions, like a series of paintings beautifully put together. In one harrowing scene, a helicopter, armed with machine guns, hovers just outside the church. The brothers hold onto each other, and chant louder and louder, until their sounds drown out the rumblings outside. If anything, Mr. Beauvois believes in the power of faith, and finds a true story that brings out the best in humanity, by calling for peace through our brotherhood.

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