Friday, 3 December 2010

LFF #7: Of Gods And Men (Des hommes et des dieux) (Xavier Beauvois, 2010)

Films that directly deal with the subject of faith are few and far between. Ordet (Carl Dreyer, 1955), Winter Light (Ingmar Bergman, 1963) and Wings Of Desire (Wim Wenders, 1987) could be counted among the better entries on the topic, but the problem is that most filmmakers don't have the courage to speak on such a challenging subject - let alone question it. In recent years we have become much more cynical about religion and films like Religulous (Larry Charles, 2008) and Jesus Camp (Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady, 2006) have highlighted some of the hypocrisy, inconsistency and danger of organised religion in contemporary society. I myself am an atheist but religion and faith has always been an interesting subject to me, which is why this 'new wave' of ideas-based films, which can only be the result of a more liberal and free-speaking world, are so refreshing. Many would cite Letters To God (David Nixon, Patrick Doughtie, 2010) as the leader of this 'wave' but I would prefer to look further away from the American mainstream. Lourdes (Jessica Hausner, 2009) is probably the most powerful faith-based film I have ever seen - the story of Christine (Sylvie Testud), a wheelchair-bound woman who takes a trip to the Pyrénées mountains, to the famous site of pilgrimage, looking for a cure to her helpless situation. Much like Des hommes et des dieux, Lourdes is a film of subtlety, sensitivity and repetition. A lack of score and an ambient tone provide the perfect lens through which to view the struggle with faith in the modern world - can it really cure Christine? There is also an ambiguity to the film that assures it never preaches or shifts beyond the realms of possibility.

Des hommes et des dieux, shot by Caroline Champetier (Ponette, Jacques Doillon, 1996) is a beautiful and meditative essay on the strength of faith. It tells the story of a group of Cistercian monks whose community is challenged by violent fundamentalists in 90s Algeria - where they were forced to make a life changing decision. Many scenes take place in either conference or choir. There are several tense scenes of the monks debating their place in the Tibhirine monastery, when faced by violence. Will their faith begin to waver when faced with martyrdom? They know the correct thing would be to stay with their people, who are engaged in civil war (1991 - 2002, against Islamist rebel groups). It is this question, of faith in the path of adversity , which echoes through the silences of Des hommes et des dieux. The choir sections are powerfully harmonic, and provide the moments of peaceful salvation in the film. Although the film is delicate (most actors seem to speak in a whisper and the natural use of sound is lovely) there is an air of impending doom that makes the monks decision all the more troublesome. The pace is incredibly slow and although it does meander somewhat, the performances are terrific (Michael Lonsdale delivers his finest work in years) and it's very easy to feel for the plight of the characters.

There is one false note that threatens to bring the film down. The monks spend a final evening together (obviously allegorical of The Last Supper) and the camera slowly observes each of their faces. Had this scene been played in silence, it may have made the tragic denouement all the more powerful. But as Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake swells over the images of the men, the naturalness is interrupted by a woefully misjudged moment of Academy begging sentiment. The music crescendos over the one scene in the film that just had to be underplayed. It's laughable, frankly, and suddenly reveals that Beauvois doesn't have as confident a grasp on his material as was initially hinted. It's a step down from which the film never fully recovers, despite the brave ending. I applaud Les hommes et des dieux for its beauty, intelligence and honesty. I applaud it for its delicate and non-judgmental handling of difficult subject matter, and for not backing down from questioning faith. Most will be put off by the fact that it's in a foreign language (French) but you only need be wary of that final false step which distances rather than draws closer it's viewer - at the most crucially important point.

1 comment:

  1. You are WAY too harsh with the direcor over the Tchaikovsky segment! I actually liked it!

    This is an extraordinary film in every sense!