The following was originally written in October 2010. I have revised it slightly for publication here. Of Gods And Men opened in limited US/Canada release on Feb. 25.
Prior to seeing Xavier Beauvois’ Of Gods and Men at the VIFF last year, I had read a few positive reviews from its screenings at Cannes. The reception in Toronto and New York was no less encouraging thanks to positive pieces penned by Michael Sicinski and Glenn Kenny, both of whom are well-known for their insight, scrupulousness, and grounded opinions of any film, whether prestigious or not. These are not fellows who will offer knee-jerk praise to any Palm-baiting arthouse flick that makes it over here. The advance word was very good, to say the least.
I mention this in order to talk about a couple more reviews that were filed from Cannes, both somewhat negative and similar in one specific way. Both Michael D’Angelo and Matt Noller criticized the film for being, in Noller’s words “somber and respectful to a fault: the Cannes equivalent of Oscar bait.” D’Angelo unenthusiastically described it as “mass hagiography.” Watching the film, I couldn’t help but reflect on these words and the assumptions behind them — especially the hint of an attitude that seems to automatically roll its eyes at works that approach subjects of intrinsic gravity with reverence. As a film about men who gave up lives of comfort, romance, and eventually their blood for the spiritual path to which they felt called, a certain amount of seriousness should be expected. Faith, religion, doubt, and death are all “heavy topics,” and a film that tackles them, as this one does, is bound to be “somber” in places. Why all the fuss?
I’m frustrated by this seemingly detached way of viewing and dismissing a film that deals with difficult subjects as “too reverent.” The implication of this complaint is that Beauvois’ respect for his subject somehow morphs into a technical flaw in the film’s storytelling. “Beauvois is less interested in humanizing the monks than in sanctifying them” writes Noller, while “Of Gods & Men never sets a foot wrong, but neither does it challenge the viewer to feel anything but passive admiration,” says D’Angelo. “Good” people doing good things. Ho-hum. Compounding the situation is the fact that Beauvois has made an intensely detailed film, materially and intellectually, about religious devotion (which may or may not make either critic uncomfortable, though wondering about that reads too much into brief comments) that does nothing to coerce the viewer to take one side or the other (Christian or Muslim), but also doesn’t leave plenty of room for the atheist to make moral claims about the problems of religion. It takes great pains to portray its characters’ faith in action while avoiding adopting any religious opinion (including atheism) as a worldview for the apparatus. Its reverence is almost anthropological in nature; full of deep respect for the way a long-held tradition inspires courage in its adherents.
Of Gods and Men is an inherently “spiritual film,” in the sense that most of its scenes seem haunted by a spiritual presence. I do not invoke these terms to describe something vaguely intuited during the film, but to give weight to a presence, even a character, that is rooted in the religious identity of the subjects. What’s intriguing is how this presence is evoked not necessarily through obvious formal choices, but through performance and character. One monk tells a young woman of how he used to be in love with a woman, until he encountered “a greater love,” which he followed into the monastery. Later we see this man’s loving care of the villagers around him, whom he heals and binds, acting in the manner of Christ. The words of the monks tell us how God is moving in their lives, but this sort of interaction is never physicalized in a supernatural way. Everything that happens is internal, both on the screen and off.
Keeping that in mind, a certain scene late in the picture inspired a curious effect in me as I watched. Somewhere during one of the monks’ communal prayer times, I felt compelled to close my eyes as they prayed. What’s fascinating to me about this compulsion was not that I felt like I too needed to pray along with the characters, but that I had an inexplicable sense that closing my eyes would actually allow me to “see” the scene in front of me “better”, or perhaps, more clearly. I did close my eyes, briefly, and certainly felt like I didn’t miss anything by doing so. Indeed, I think I had a brief moment of perception where I felt in tune with the monks on screen, with the rhythm of their lives and their worship, such that this late scene of religious devotion invited me to participate. I sensed that I what I was seeing and hearing was not the whole picture, that something else on another level entirely was going on, and that closing my eyes might bring me closer to seeing it.
The whole film is conventionally narrative, but punctuated by regular interludes showing the monks at chapel together, chanting and praying. These moments become a ritual within the editing, allowing Beauvois to shape the film into something approaching a liturgy. This cycle of prayer and praise sinks in over time, easing the viewer into the film and pointing them towards the Holy.
I believe that Beavois’ evocation of a sense of the Holy is also result of a phenomenology closely attuned to the monks’ faces and bodies, both individually and collectively. Or to put it another way, if Beavois is deploying a spiritual or transcendental aesthetic, it’s one that hews closer to Rossellini than to Bresson. The film’s formal asceticism only extends as far as the sparseness of its subjects’ lives. If Beauvois’ frames seem bare, it is because of the settings he’s capturing: outside, it’s uncomplicated mountains, deserts, and fields; inside it’s sparsely furnished rooms of people with few possessions. The images seem devoid of distraction because that is precisely the world these monks have created for themselves — Beauvois is ultimately operating in a tradition of historical realism that recalls Rossellini’s own picture about monks, The Flowers of St. Francis. Beauvois’ monks, like Rossellini’s, are miles removed from Bresson’s inexpressive “models;” and like Rossellini, Beauvois spends most of his time meditating on the human face in flux, not set in stone. There is a rich humanism humming under the surface of both films, a deep respect for each man as he struggles with doubts.
The film is intriguing in its refusal to follow Bressonian models of transcendental filmmaking, or to dabble in Bergman-style expressionism. Except for one shot — a praying monk backlit by dusty rays — Beauvois avoids the sort of austere flamboyance that spiritual and existential dramas have typically indulged. And except for a climax of flat close-ups of each monk listening to a cue from Swan Lake, Beauvois also eschews the visual purity favoured by Bresson (and even this, Beauvois’ most Bressonian moment, is dominated by cathartic music; a choice that, diagetic source or not, is a direct affront to Bresson’s values).
If the film speaks to our time, it does so by addressing the gap between Christians and Muslims, particularly in taking steps to care for and humanize Muslim believers from the perspective of its protagonists – that is, from a peaceful, loving worldview rooted in the specific traditions of these Christian monks. Beauvois avoids trying to reconcile Islam and Christianity as equally viable paths within a fundamentally secular world – indeed, the issue is never raised — but instead focuses on how the two might respect each other while gently affirming their own exclusive creeds. A deep respect is preserved between the monks and the villagers, with neither side feeling compelled to shuck their beliefs and convert.
The final shot is a masterful summary of faithfulness in general, for both sides involved. It’s a wide shot of the monks and their kidnappers, Muslim extremists, marching up a mountain into a snowstorm. The monks walk gracefully to their fate; the would-be killers go matter-of-factly. There is no judgment to be found in the framing; it is just a simple statement of the faith dynamics that drive these two groups. One will love and keep dying for that love, regardless of who’s pulling the trigger; the other will keep killing, as they believe they must. The viewer may pick sides but Beauvois’ staging doesn’t force it. It’s a fitting end to a film that coolly examines faith tested by doubt and decision-making. It’s a moment of facts, not opinions. It is a moment of natural reverence, of understanding the gravity of what’s about to take place. It needs that breath of anticipation, of waiting, in order to register an effect. If there is no holiness to be found in that moment, then it’s all a waste of time.
Maybe that’s what the naysayers were looking for. And they can keep on looking. This is one of those rare films that observes the religious experience and does not blink. It does not preach. It simply records. If one can’t help but feel reverent, then so be it. This is about as unobtrusive as a film about this subject gets.