Originally Reviewed – 4/20/2011
I am not, what most people would call, a religious person.
Growing up in working class New Jersey, I had a Roman Catholic upbringing, complete with a Christening, a Confirmation, several weekends spent at CCD and more than a few confessions made at the local church. My family wasn’t terribly into it and my spiritual training consisted mostly of, “do it, because you’re supposed to”. My family consisted of true “CE” Catholics, meaning they only saw the inside of Saint Anthony’s on Christmas and Easter. Any other time, heading to the chapel was more of a chore than a spiritual journey, much like vacuuming the living room or cutting the grass. As an adult, that apathy towards modern religion has stuck around. While I feel more in tune with the spiritual side of things as I’ve grown older, I’ve never felt the need to head to a church to have a spiritual moment. That is, until I saw the latest film by director Xavier Beauvois, Of Gods and Men. Not only is this film a piece of quiet beauty, it speaks to the audience on a level deeper than simple dialogue and scenes, creating a spiritual experience that sticks with you months after the final frame flickers on screen.
Discussing a film of such depth and meaning in any traditional sense is difficult at best. The true story of eight Trappist monks on a mission in Algeria and their collective decision to either flee the erupting civil violence or stay as a symbol to the people they’ve sworn to help is just the surface dressing for a more emotional experience. At the outset, the monks go about their daily business quietly and peacefully: they garden, visit the town leaders, settle some petty disputes, all while maintaining a sense of quiet serenity. This peace is echoed in the filmmaking which could be brashly described as “slow” but I much prefer patient. The film moves at a glacial pace but the tempo only serves to heighten the connection between the audience and the action on screen. This is especially true when the camera settles on the monks at prayer. These scenes, usually framed in a single wide shot or in a slow track, show the eight brothers praying in harmony, singing, connecting and being one with God. A disconnected viewing will make the scene seem indulgent and boring but if you allow yourself to meld with the moment, the effect is quietly powerful.
As the film movies from the day to day work to the drama of the burgeoning civil war that threatens the sanctity of the monk’s community, the drama escalates accordingly, all while keeping the sense of peace and serenity established in the fist half hour. While you’ll have a hard time differentiating who’s who at the beginning, once the tension ramps up, you start to see the color of each character: some want to stay, some want to flee and they all have their own motivations as to why. The cast is unilaterally great in their respective roles, all leading up to the “wine at dinner” scene which is so brilliantly played by the actors and beautifully directed, I challenge you to not smile while still having a tear in your eye. While the scene does border on melodrama, given the gravity of the situation they find themselves in, it’s completely understandable.
Of Gods And Men is the first film of 2011 that I can honestly label as brilliant. From the opening scene to the final snow blanketed frame, the movie not only tells a compelling story, it shakes you to the core, challenging you to re-examine your own ideas of faith, all told in an unforced and beautiful way. When the credits roll on a film, I usually leave right away. Trains to catch, things to do, reviews to write, etc. The time though, I felt compelled to sit there with what I had watched, letting the thoughts and emotions roll through me. Disquieting yet necessary, the film had not only taken me on a journey with eight men of peace, eight men who, in the spirit of true religious charity showed exactly what it was to live for an ideal, it took me on a journey within myself. The chilly walk home that evening was surprisingly quiet for nine o’clock on the Upper West Side, a perfect ending to a remarkable film going experience. Alone with my thoughts, I had a small epiphany about this film and the message it was trying to preach, something that’s stuck with me to this day.
Maybe you won’t have the same experience. Maybe you’ll read this review, thrown it on the Netflix list, sit down with it in six months and say, “Ehhhh…man this flick is slow. What’s on A&E”? If so, I don’t mind. Movies like this speak to different people in different ways and it really isn’t the type of thing meant for mass consumption. My only advice is that if you do choose to see it, see it properly. Turn off the phone, dim the lights to black and just sit with it. Get wrapped up in it. Let the patient pacing, lovely acting and wondrous direction fill you with a solemn type of serenity that’s unlike anything I’ve experience while watching a film. Like or hate it, your perception of what a film can aspire to will be irrevocably changed.
Score – 100%