Wednesday, March 30, 2016

"Of Gods and Men": one-paragraph review

Last night, I watched "Of Gods and Men," a 2010 film* starring Lambert Wilson** (the Merovingian from "The Matrix Reloaded") and Michael Lonsdale*** (Drax from "Moonraker") as Trappist monks in a sparsely appointed monastery housing a handful of monastics in Algeria during the 1990s Algerian Civil War. The story—based on an actual incident—is a simple one, simply and deliberately told: the monastery has built a warm, years-long relationship with the surrounding Muslim community, but war has broken out, and jihadi terrorists have swept into the area, threatening a long-standing peace. The monks must decide whether to stay or go, and then must live with the consequences. If they stay, they will likely be killed. If they leave, they will be abandoning a poor community that has come to rely on the monks' spiritual and medical care (one old monk [Lonsdale] is a doctor). The film, directed by Xavier Beauvois, features beautiful cinematography, deep existential themes, and a respectful view of Christian monastic life. If you already know of the incident on which the movie is based, you already know the fate of most of these monks, which makes the story all the more poignant and depressing. What came through for me was the shameful unnecessariness of most violence and killing, as well as the question: what would I have done had I been one of the monks?

*The original French title is "Des hommes et des dieux," i.e., "Of Men and of Gods." The English-language title strikes me as a gratuitous alteration. If anything, the English title is distracting because it now inadvertently(?) alludes to Steinbeck.

**Wilson is French, but is native-fluent in British English. The trivia is that he had to fake his French accent for the Matrix films because he's such a natural English speaker.

***I had long thought that Lonsdale was British, having seen him in mostly English-speaking roles in movies like "Moonraker" and "The Name of the Rose" (where he played a Benedictine abbot, famously kissing Sean Connery full on the lips). My first hint that he was a French speaker came in the 1990s, when I saw him in "Ronin" opposite Robert De Niro and Jean Réno. Turns out Lonsdale is actually French, and has acted in many a French-speaking role.



The Maximum Leader said...

I did not know the story, before clicking on the link. But I suppose, without seeing the film or knowing much about the circumstances, that the monks would have to stay - presuming that the local population was not able to flee as well. Can the shepherds leave the flock when the wolves come?

Kevin Kim said...

"Can the shepherds leave the flock when the wolves come?"

The French version of that line is actually spoken in the movie, during a scene in which the monks sit around a table and discuss their options. That was a powerful line, given that the shepherd imagery evoked Jesus, "le Grand Berger" (the Great Shepherd). Another powerful line is spoken by Lonsdale, who plays the old doctor handling 150 patients per day: "Partir, c'est mourir"—"To leave is to die."

SJHoneywell said...

I tend to agree with you, and even as a heretic apostate, I thought there was a lot of value in this.

To wit:

Kevin Kim said...

A nicely written and thoughtful review, as always, Steve. Thanks for linking.