02 October, 2010

Des Hommes et des Dieux (Of Gods and Men) (2010)

Who's killing who?

Official Selection, European Film Awards 2010

Though this film portrays terrorism and its victims, this is not another 'post 9/11 film'. In fact, the events it portrays transpired between 1993 and 1996, and had nothing to do with America, George W. Bush, or Iraq. The victims were French, and the perpetrators Algerian. But which Algerians? One of the film's characters even gets to utter the question raised by countless Algerians and outside observers: "Qui tue qui?" ("Who is killing who?").

For the monks of Tibhirine, that question may never really be answered with certainty. What is certain, however, is that Xavier Beauvois has given us a unique film - the Cannes 2010 Jury Grand Prize winner. A film that is very difficult to categorize, neither a thriller nor just a film about monks or terrorists. That said, it has plenty of suspense, even if pretty much everyone knows the eventual fate of the monks.

Our time spent with the monks gives us a sense of their world, before Algeria's decade-plus of bloodshed intervened to change their pastoral idyll forever. It is the portrayal of the monks' lives, and their anguish over the violence taking over their adopted country, which is so powerfully rendered in Des Hommes et des Dieux. The spectator is transported to Algeria in the mid-Nineties, and the sigh that a monk utters over the sheer beauty of the landscape of the high steppes and forested hills is something that one can almost feel. And the sense of impending loss.

Beauvois has given us a beautiful film, and the casting is perfect. Lambert Wilson as Brother Christian, the Prior of the monastery, has an ascetic intellectual steel behind wire-rimmed glasses beloved of French priests. He resents the intrusion of the warring factions on the monks' work, though his decision to stick it out in the isolated mountains causes him constant anguish. Olivier Rabourdin as Christophe is riven with doubt, and closeups of his eyes replace any need for extraneous dialogue. Brother Luc, played by an avuncular Michel Lonsdale, has seen it all - literally. During Algeria's war of liberation in the Fifties, Luc was taken prisoner by the FLN, only to be released when they realized that Dr. Luc Dochier was treating Algerians - both FLN fighters and civilians.

Despite the difficulty of treating such a subject, Olivier Beauvois gives us a very subtle film, one that hints at the ambiguities of the record. The monks recoil at the violence perpetrated by both sides, and their stubborn insistence at staying with the villagers who depend on them for employment, for medical treatment, and for intelligent conversation becomes an annoyance to the combatants.

A hovering helicopter gives a premonition of the fate that may have befallen the monks, the loud, whirling blades audible as they pray in their chapel. Is it Army protection, or something else? In 2009, former French military attaché in Algiers General François Buchwalter testified that the monks were in fact killed in a botched attack on what the Army took to be an Islamist group.

Of Gods and Men is an ode to a group of incredibly brave men, beautifully acted and filmed. A fitting memorial to the monks buried on a hillside in their beloved Algeria.

Gerald Loftus
122 mins. In French.

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