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Chris Morris’s debut Four Lions (2010) found fame in it’s irreverent portrayal of Islamic fundamentalism in Yorkshire: the headlines that accompanied Brass Eye (1997-2001) succesfully carried on into a low-key marketing campaign in that debut feature. Beauvois’ film isn’t so much a farcical account of the spiralling contradictions of religious extremism. But it does share its preoccupation with exactly how far one, or rather a small community, can go to devote themselves to their beliefs.
Of Gods and Men (Des Hommes et Des Dieux)
The film is located in the 1996 Algerian Civil War, and tells the true story of a monastery under threat from the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria (GIA). Dom. Christian (Lambert Wilson) takes it upon himself to express their intentions to ignore the threats, and continue their mission of goodwill. This is disputed by the group throughout, whose dilemma forces some of them to question their allegiance to God, and jeopardise their own health (as with the outstanding Michael Lonsdale’s, Luc). Coping with the sacrifices involved in such an all-consuming faith is key to the themes here (“We’re not here for martyrdom” reminds Christian), and it’s difficult to recall a more delicate, understated study. An excellent example of Beauvois’ achievement, both visually and performance-wise, is the kiss Luc places on the mural of Christ. Moments like this underline the dependency they all share on one thing alone: their religion. It looms over them, both haunting and cradling them throughout, like the vast, unspoiled skylines which constantly diminish them beneath – Caroline Champetier’s cinematography is key to the affect created.
Tranquil moments like Luc’s, where the viewer is allowed in such close, personal space, are almost unsettling in the access that’s granted. The beauty achieved in these meditative scenes is all the more striking as we’re reminded that these men are nearing the end of their lives. Death is always present – from direct representation (as with the brutal throat-slitting of the Croat workers) to the indirect (the technique of cutting from the most tranquil scene to the loudest, most destructive scene).
The film is an anti-thriller in its treatment of fear and terror – the key moment occurs before the half-way point, and the viewer is left fearing for a reprisal for the duration. Beauvois’ alternative narrative, featuring a fairly clear split down the middle, also featured in his previous Don’t Forget You’re Going to Die (1995) and To Mathieu (2000). Similarly, more recently, Mia Hansen-Love’s Father of My Children (2010) involved a number of characters picking up the pieces in the wake of death. French colonialism in Algeria is only once directly attacked, when the police chief demands they leave. However, when viewed in a similar light to, say, Hidden (Cache, Michael Haneke, 2005), the occupation these men choose, the service they provided, the sacrifice they made, could too, easily be forgotten. So while the terrorism fears, today shared globally, are a focal point, a narrative of this kind reminds one not to forget the horrors of the past.
Of Gods and Men is testement to a thriving New French Cinema. Thought-provoking, rich in content both (formally and thematically), it’s difficult to find fault with a film that so meticulously justifies its choices: the landscape is artwork, the tone is perfect, and the performances are achingly affective throughout.