Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Review: "Of Gods and Men"

It's one thing for a film to explore why men would choose to become monks, embracing a bleak existence of quiet contemplation. It's quite another to replicate that experience for the audience.

"Of Gods and Men," won the Grand Prix at last year's Cannes Film Festival for its portrayal of eight French Christian monks living in largely Muslim Algeria in the mid-1990s. It's based on a true story, but since it's not generally well-known I won't reveal their ultimate fate. Suffice it to say the film is not about what happens to these holy men, but the choice they make.

As the story opens, the country is under increasing attack by Islamist extremists who are targeting Westerners. The monks, some of whom have lived there for decades, must choose whether to abandon their mission or stay and risk death.

Director and co-writer Xavier Beauvois takes us into the monks' inner lives, showing in loving detail their prayers, hymns and private conversations. We feel their anguish, and learn that while these men ranging from middle-aged to ancient are ordained in the church, they are by no means saints. They have their failings, doubts and petty clashes.

But the sad, harsh truth is that two hours spent inside a Trappist monastery turns out to be achingly dull. Watching this film, we feel like fidgety children at Mass, kicking the pews and sending our mind out to wander in a failing attempt to make time pass faster.

I spent plenty of my youth in services, and this movie mostly succeeded at dredging up a lot of suppressed memories of aching boredom.

When Beauvois and co-screenwriter Etienne Comar focus on the plight of the monks and their fateful choice -- not unlike that of their Savior -- "Of Gods and Men" takes on a vibrant energy, as we plunge into this crisis of life and death, faith versus reason.

But during the times the film follows the monks on their quotidian tasks -- planting and harvesting, dispensing medical care to the villagers, cooking and eating, praying and singing -- it feels like a verite-style documentary of that which is just not terribly interesting.

The performances by the ensemble cast are uniformly good, though a few stand out. Lambert Wilson plays Christian, the troubled head of the order who unwittingly places his own feelings before his fellows. Jacques Herlin plays Amédée, the oldest and perhaps most centered of the monks. Olivier Rabourdinis portrays one of the youngest and most impetuous.

I especially enjoyed the great French actor Michael Lonsdale as Luc, the obstinate old monk who's also a doctor. Lonsdale, perhaps best known in the U.S. for his role as the relentless inspector in "The Day of the Jackal," radiates intelligence like few actors can do -- Sidney Poitier comes to mind. You can practically hear Luc thinking.

2 stars out of four

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