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Of Gods and Men
Time Out New York Project: Issue #802, February 24-March 9, 2011
Dir. Xavier Beauvois. 2010. R. 122mins. In French and Arabic, with subtitles. Lambert Wilson, Michael Lonsdale, Olivier Rabourdin.
French director Xavier Beauvois begins his heartbreaking Cannes prizewinner simply and beautifully: Eight Gallic monks sing songs in the chapel of their provincial Algerian monastery. They’re photographed from behind in a single, extended long shot; they are, first and foremost, a harmonious body. We quickly come to know them as individuals, and two in particular, Christian (Wilson) and Luc (Lonsdale), emerge as the closest things to onscreen audience surrogates. But Beauvois never loses sight of the monks’ interconnectedness — what affects one inevitably affects the others.
That’s the essential quandary the group grapples with after Islamic fundamentalists lay waste to neighboring locales. It’s only a matter of time before the monks and the Arab villagers whom they assist are caught up in the whirlwind of violence (in a particularly striking scene, the brothers chant a psalm against the drone of a helicopter, as if defiantly trying to preserve routine). The question remains: Do they stay or do they go?
There are no easy answers, and even when decisions are made, Beauvois takes pains to counteract any overbearing sense of righteousness. The most mundane actions are charged with tension (while washing dishes, one of the brothers inexplicably curses at Luc), and when the inevitable happens, the reactions run the gamut (cowardice, aggressiveness, confusion, acquiescence — no one is united). Godly as the monks are, they are still human — which makes their ultimate sacrifice all the more devastating.—Keith Uhlich
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