Weekly Movie Diary (2-28-11) “Of Gods and Men” and “Vanishing on 7th Street”

Of Gods and Men (Des homes et des dieux) tells the powerful true story of an embattled group of French monks in North Africa threatened by an increasingly bold fanatical Islamic organization. The fundamentalists assert their power through violence – early on a story reaches them that the group murdered a young woman for not wearing a proper veil. When they attack and murder a group of Croatian aid workers it becomes clear that foreigners are no longer immune to the fundamentalist menace. The government urges the monks to leave, or at least accept military protection, but they refuse. They will stay put and serve the community without the protection of the corrupt government until, as they believe, God sees fit to end their service in the remote mountain community.

As the threat becomes more distinct, it becomes clear where events are headed so the movie wouldn’t be terribly compelling if the monks were all saints-in-training from the beginning. They are divided on what to do, some want to leave, others are determined to stay. None of them want to die; they are all scared and martyrdom isn’t attractive to them, but they each react to those emotions in different ways. Those who advocate staying argue that leaving would abandon the villagers who depend on them to the wolves. They struggle through much of the movie until they reach a sublime consensus in one of the strongest, emotional scenes of the movie – they all vote to stay – even those who had been most conflicted – with conviction and a renewed sense of purpose, knowing that staying probably means their deaths.

The vote to stay

Movies about religious orders often reduce their characters to a series of clichéd quirks and they end up reminding us more of the Seven Dwarfs rather than a real group of people (think Sister Act or The Name of the Rose). Of Gods and Men masterfully distinguishes its characters and their points of view through sharp writing, careful direction, and quietly sincere performances. The actors inhabit their roles with ease, standing apart as individuals while still being part of a fraternity of monks who have lived and worked together for years. Each has a specific role: Brother Luc (Michael Lonsdale) tends to the medical needs of the community, Brother Jean-Pierre (Loïc Pichon in a supporting performance fraught with conflict and emotion – one of the best of 2010) maintains the garden, Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson) quietly leads, and elderly Brother Amédée (Jacques Herlin) is the wise voice of age and experience.

There are also moments of pure cinematic bliss. One scene that especially stands out comes late in the film, when all the Brothers sit for what turns out to be a last supper of sorts. Set to Tchaikovsky’s increasingly intense Swan Lake, the men eat and drink without comment. They begin the meal in good spirits, happy to be alive, together, and in service to their fellow men and God. Slowly, though, their moods shift and the room grows somber. Smiles fade and tears begin to fall. There is no dialogue here, only close ups that are framed increasingly tighter, giving us the feeling that we are crossing over into their collective consciousness. They know they are on the verge of losing their lives and, the greater tragedy, their community, something that is beautiful for themselves personally and for humanity as a whole. This scene alone is a triumph for director Xavier Beauvoir and the actors who pull off an amazing feat.

What is most remarkable about the film is the decision to use the story not as a gimmick to exploit our fears about radical Islam, but as an opportunity to advocate for greater understanding on both sides of the divide. The movie represents the most positive impulses religion can inspire, though Beauvoir acknowledges those impulses must be carefully cultivated. Religion is not a simple cure for hatred and fear. Beauvoir recognizes that religion can fuel hatred, though he is careful not to demonize the entire Muslim faith. Islam, he argues, is not the enemy. Christians and Muslims can (and have) live together in harmony. It is only when fanatics on either side assert their rigid views through force that the harmony is disrupted. The monks of the film do not fear or hate Islam because of a group of fanatics. On the contrary, they have great respect for it which throws off one of the fundamentalists. During on late night confrontation Brother Christian stuns their leader by quoting from the Quran. Christian is attempting to show the fundamentalists that their fight is unnecessary; they can live together in peace.

That message is lost and the brothers know it. As they move closer to disaster they take the opportunity to renew their faith and their vows, to truly appreciate why they are there and the work they are doing, which hadn’t been all that clear for some of them for much of the movie. But they never lose sight of the true enemy: fear and intolerance. They understand that just as their virtue does not characterize all Christians, the fundamentalists hate does not characterize all Muslims. This understanding comes through to us and that is the true triumph of Beauvoir’s film. We don’t leave the theater hating or even angry at the fundamentalists. Brother Christians heartfelt and thoughtful letter of peace and understanding (related in a moving voice over, a device I generally dislike, but it worked here) explains how they want to be remembered, and anger or thirst for revenge would not have honored their memories. We leave the theater renewed, energized at the story of these men who were willing to sacrifice everything in service of the poor and disenfranchised, for humanity. Their story reminds us that there are still those in the world working for good and lasting peace, even in the face of personal danger, something all too rare in this age of avarice. (Rating *****)

If Hayden Christensen was smart, he would have disappeared out of this movie like everyone else

Vanishing on 7th Street is nowhere near the same class as Of Gods and Men. This is about as bad as a horror/thriller gets without being completely worthless. The premise is silly enough: mysterious creatures snatch most everyone away during a Detroit blackout, leaving only a handful of survivors scrambling to stay in the light, the only protection from the shadowy body snatchers. I suppose it could have been handled well, but from the beginning we don’t care. Our eyes roll early when we see John Leguizamo reading a book about the lost colony of Roanoke, the sort of false foreshadowing that could only happen in a movie. And things only get worse. When everyone disappears, their clothes, glasses, and even dentures, are left behind often (unintentionally?) comic arranged piles. The effect is often silly rather than chilling – like Night of the Comet, but that movie was intended to be tongue in cheek. The acting also fails to inspire anything other than cringes. With the exception of Thandie Newton, everyone is terrible. Stars Hayden Christensen and John Leguizamo have done better work than thid, but they are lackluster here, as though they never had their hearts or heads in the project. But why should they have given any more? The story could have been a clever parable for the vanishing industrial jobs and middle class in the Midwest. Setting the story in economically beleaguered Detroit gets us half way there, but director Brad Anderson falls back on tired horror conventions and well-worn plot gimmicks, ignoring their juicy implications. (Rating *)

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6 responses to “Weekly Movie Diary (2-28-11) “Of Gods and Men” and “Vanishing on 7th Street”

  1. “Of Gods and Men” sounds like a must see.

    That’s sad about “Vanishing on blah blah blah.” I really like Brad Anderson (The Machinist and Sesion 9 were really good and his episode of Boardwalk Empire was the best directed aside from the Scorsese pilot) – but anything with Hayden Christiansen AND John Leguizamo has to be a clunker. I find both actors to be insufferable. Sounds like Anderson just gave up and said “who cares?”

    • “Of Gods and Men” is an absolute must-see and will almost certainly make my top 10 list of the year (though it’s actually a 2010 release).

      I still haven’t seen “The Machinist” though the DVD has been sitting on my shelf for two or three years. I do, however, remember liking “Session 9.” This one is no “Session 9.” I don’t know if a movie with Christensen and Leguizamo has to be a clunker. I’ve liked them in past movies. Christensen in “Shattered Glass” and Leguizamo in “To Wong Foo.” But if you come in hating them, there isn’t too much they can do. And I wonder if Anderson really did give up. I have a feeling he was the only one clinging, the only one taking the project seriously while everyone else checked out and did the bare minimum.

  2. You’ve sold me on Of Gods and Men. I’ll let you know when I see it (though you may be waiting a long time)!

    • Well if you keep up your Netflix subscription I think it will end up there in a few months. It seems all the foreign movies that get any kind of distribution here end up on Netflix streaming.

  3. Terrific roundup, let of course by your rightful celebration of one of the cinema’s greatest exploration of faith (OF GODS AND MEN) on record. You’ve done an exceedingly great job in conveying the film’s artistry and emotional heft. I am presently preparing my own for review for the weekend, but I could hardly better your brilliance here. My obession for the film continued last night, when I saw it for a second time in the space of five days, meeting up with my site pal Kaleem Hasan at the Landmark Cinemas in Manhattan. The film lost not an ounce of it’s power. With POETRY and the upcoming UNCLE BOONME, this is quite a spectacular start to t0 2011.

    I haven’t seen VANISHING, but have taken note of your review here.

    • As I have already told David, I think “Of Gods and Men” is already a shoo-in for the best of the year, unless this turns out to be a phenomenal year with at least 10 better movies. I am looking forward to seeing this one again, though, as you indicate, “Uncle Boonme” has just opened, along with “The Strange Case of Angelica” and “I Saw the Devil,” so those are all high on my list. Unfortunately “Poetry” still hasn’t opened here in Los Angeles.

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