It’s random, the reasons one finds to leave the house to see a film.
I had heard Lambert Wilson on the preparation for his role as head of a Cistercian monastery in Algeria. He talked about learning Gregorian chanting with the other seven actors playing the monks: ‘It has absolutely nothing to do with theatrical singing . . . It’s about merging, merging with something bigger than yourself. It’s not about performance. In fact, I had to “turn myself down.” As with any trained actor, I wanted to have the most beautiful sound — it was very difficult at the beginning not to perform.’
And I wanted to see Of Gods and Men because of the stills showing the great silvered head of Michael Lonsdale. That’s him, above right; Jacques Herlin on the left. (You may recall Wilson and Lonsdale playing villains; one in the Matrix, one in James Bond.) I wanted to know what that wily old bear would do — if a film about monks sounds like a meal of bran, Lonsdale was a coded promise of wine and chocolate.
The true story is grim — in 1996, French monks in a monastery set in a poor community get caught up in the Algerian Civil War, between the army and Islamic extremists. What the film is also, and more truly about is something even more mysterious than civil war — faith, and how faith can be lost. And how grace may come. The monks face a literally life and death decision — to stay or to go. The doubt that ravages one of the brothers could befall, you think, anyone.
Helicopters, music and crying in the dark
Yes, I agree it is coarse to note the highlights, but you weren’t expecting Cahiers du cinéma? For a review, try Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian. Not that I’m at one with him, but it’s as useful as any (see Ebert for a minority dissent). The last film I saw about tight-lipped monks, Into Great Silence, garnered rave reviews — a doco, it compacted four seasons into three hours of glacial rhythm and confirmed my gossipy, secular being; the credits rolled, my mobile powered on. The monks in this film are not chatty, but they do talk (and once, even swear), and they sing with a modest sincerity.
— The tension is implacably built in this slowish, gentle film. By midway every open door and corridor, every window shot suggests the possibilty of another kind of shot. There’s a scene — which is, or will be famous — when a helicopter hovers above the little chapel in the hills. Francis Coppola has done grandiose things with helicopters and Wagner but nothing in Apocalypse Now approaches the sound of chopper blades beyond stained glass windows, and the voices raised in Gregorian chant against the roar.
— Lonsdale, who made no actorly preparation, plays Luc, who serves as doctor for the poor villagers all around. Fra Luc is sly and urbane, a humorous man who’s seen a great deal (Luke of the Gospels, of course, was both Gentile Greek and a medic). He even counsels a young woman about falling in love. Late in the piece he instigates a scene involving a very familiar tune. For those, like me, who don’t mind losing it at the movies, Tchaikovsky is apt accompaniment for complicated tears.
— After the grit and gravity, the last scene arrives with a spectral and not at all inappropriate beauty.
As a non-believer, the whole idea of holy sacrifice for the affirmation of god, to the glory of any god, seems misguided at best, at worst a criminal waste. I wanted to argue with the logic of the monks; to me at least there seemed to be a moral coercion that could not be admitted: to fail in courage, however rational, was to fail in faith, was to fail God. To its credit, the film makes a big, if biased effort to wrestle with the question. But in the end, in the end, they got to me — I am a convert to Of Gods and Men.