Despite my relative disinterest in this year's Oscar race, one of the most disappointing snubs was the failure of Xavier Beauvois' Of Gods and Men to even make the Best Foreign Language Film shortlist, let alone receive a nomination. It seemed to be a shoo-in to win the award, a sure victor, a film they couldn't possibly ignore.
I should have known better. As is often sadly the case when it comes to the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, Of Gods and Men was simply too good to be nominated.
An Oscar nomination does not a good film make. Likewise, an Oscar snub does not a bad film make. In fact, the Oscars have little bearing on what makes a good film at all, and Of Gods and Men's snubbing by the AMPAS foreign language committee has little to do with its quality. In not getting nominated, it joins a very distinguished group of films that the Academy has ignored, opening it up to be considered on its own merits, rather than as an Oscar nominee.
Based on a true story, Of Gods and Men is the tale of a cloister of French monks living in Algeria who have always lived in harmony with the Muslim citizens of the surrounding village, allowing each other to practice their own beliefs while offering medical services to those in need. The monks have devoted themselves to living as Jesus instructed, and they stand by those beliefs with humble piety. That is until a group of radical Islamic jihadists arrive in the town and begin spreading their darker, more violent version of Islam. Soon, the monks realize they are no longer safe, and are faced with an impossible choice. Should they risk their lives and stay, continuing to provide aid to the village in its time of need, or should they run for their lives and leave the town to its fate? It is a question that leads to a spiritual crisis within the tiny cloister, as the monks face a choice that will change their lives forever.
A friend once remarked to me how interesting it was that despite my own secular beliefs, I tended to have an affinity for films that dealt with religion or faith. And indeed, many of my favorite films of the past years have dealt with those themes in some fashion - Lourdes, Silent Light, There Will Be Blood, Children of Men, Letters to Father Jacob, Antichrist (to a lesser extent). Of Gods and Men fits very comfortably into that group, and I have to wonder why films of faith (not to be confused with religious filmmaking, the kinds of films that push certain beliefs) tend to have such a deep effect on me. I think it has something to do partly with my religious upbringing, but mostly its my fascination with something I do not and can not have - faith.
My mind is far too critical for spiritual faith, but the faith as demonstrated in Of Gods and Men is a profound and beautiful thing. Beauvois treats the subject with great dignity and respect, exploring complex themes of tolerance and violence without arriving at easy answers. In a scene near the end of the film, the monks all sit down to dinner at what could be the last meal they share together in the monastery they have made into their home. One of the monks puts on a recording of Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake," as they eat. It is a completely wordless scene, the emotions are conveyed through the expressions on the monks faces and the soaring strings of Tchaikovsky's immortal work. And even though nary a word is spoken and no one moves from the table, it is as powerful and as emotionally visceral as anything in Black Swan.
That is the brilliance of Of Gods and Men - Beauvois directs with a simple austerity, but one so rich with emotional and spiritual undertones that much of what the film is trying to say is conveyed without words. But that silence, like the vow of silence of a monk, is infused with great meaning, a kind of spiritual pregnancy of ideas and emotions contained within each frame, and it culminates in one of the most haunting final shots in recent memory. Not since Carlos Reygadas' camera slowly zoomed in on a glowing sunset in Silent Light have I been more moved by the closing moments of a film. Beauvois hauntingly juxtaposes the calm, dignified fervor of the monks with the angry yet reasoned views of the jihadists, showing both sides of religious zealotry. It is an exploration of just what religious devotion is capable of, especially when both sides are willing to die for their beliefs. What kind of unshakable faith does it take to devote yourself to a belief system where only one can be right? Religious or not, spiritual or not, the themes in Of Gods and Men strike a universal chord. This is what great filmmaking is all about - a strikingly simple yet deeply powerful narrative whose impact cuts straight to the bone.
GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)
OF GODS AND MEN | Directed by Xavier Beauvois | Stars Lambert Wilson, Michael Lonsdale, Olivier Rabourdin, Philippe Laudenbach, Jacques Herlin, Loïc Pichon | Rated PG-13 for a momentary scene of startling wartime violence, some disturbing images and brief language | In French w/English subtitles | Opens Friday, February 25, in NY and LA.