I’m beginning to wonder if there is as much of a formula to making European arthouse films as there is to making westerns or horrors or any other formulaic genre picture. Think about it; your average European arthouse film, as directed by a thoughtful intelligentsia-bred auteur, starts quietly, with some introspective and meditative images of nature, or people going about their day-to-day business in relative silence. Then, slowly, a theme will be bought into play, usually through some mumbled exchanges with other characters or preferably through symbolic acts. The themes will usually be about Important things; love, faith, God, death, humanity, all that jazz. There will be heavily repeated symbolic images, as well as many scenes without dialogue to break up the scenes with dialogue and provide ‘thinking’ space for the audience to contemplate the film. As the film languidly strolls towards its conclusion, we will be asked to reflect on the preceding events, and frequently the ending will be mysterious and/or inconclusive.
Now, pray tell me how is this any different from a film in which a group of teenagers go to a cabin in the woods on a holiday, and a great evil is unleashed and the slutty one gets killed first and the virginal couple survive at the end? Or a film in which a lone stranger rides into town, finds himself caught up in a battle between evil money-grubbing ranchers and honest, Christian homesteaders and finds he has to stand up for himself? There’s a formula to European arthouse films as much as there is to any other type of cinema, and the end result of this formula in particular is simply that it guarantees you’ll get 5 stars from Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian.
Of Gods and Men follows this formula to the letter, even down to the obligatory Cannes stamp on its posters. That’s not by any means a bad thing; formulae are useful tools in cinema, serving as shorthand for a film to reach into the heart of what it wants get at sooner. A good western about a lonely stranger uses that formula to break down and look at myths about heroism in the cultural canon, just as a good horror will question our bloodlust and desire to be scared. Formulae can be flipped upside down and inside out, thus creating something new. The issue with Of Gods and Men is not that it follows its formula, or that it doesn’t turn it inside out. It’s issue is that it is too timid to say anything whatsoever using its framework.
Loosely based on real events about a group of monks in Algeria who were kidnapped and killed by Islamic fundamentalist forces in 1996 (although there are suggestions they were killed by accident by Algerian state forces too), Of Gods and Men initially follows the daily lives of these monks as they go about their duties in the local Muslim-majority community, with which they comfortably co-exist. Mostly these duties revolve around medicine and aid, but with the arrival of hostile forces in the area, their existence comes under peril and the monks then have to decide whether they will stay or leave; the question for them is one of faith and duty. The scenes in which the monks contemplate their futures are the film’s strongest; there are strong echoes of cinematic legends like Carl Th. Dreyer and Ingmar Bergman, both men whose work frequently dealt with issues of faith, and the film’s sparse cinematic style: little movement, strong use of close-ups, and excellent performances by its ensemble work aid it in this regard.
There are no easy answers in Of Gods and Men. This is fine, for films have no obligation to provide answers. The problem however, is that in the film’s investigation of the monks’ faith and their lives in this remote outpost, it comes across as too timid to ask any questions too. The film gives a lot of respect to the monks and to the local community around it; they seem to function in almost perfect harmony before the arrival of the war and violence. Of Gods and Men seems almost in awe of the monks’ faith. There is one concession in regards to this, and it comes in a scene where the monks speak to a government official who advises them to leave; he quite rightly points out that much of this violence is a result of French colonial rule (let us not forget that the French war in Algeria is still well within living memory), and that the monastery itself is in many ways a leftover of such a time. The question now is whether their very presence is in fact a form of neo-colonialism.
Yet this is but one concession, and I cannot help but feel it comes across as apologetic and almost, dare I say it, politically-correct. It feels to me as if the scene was added more as a way of deflecting potential criticism and sheepishly acknowledging the effects of French colonialism, rather than genuinely questioning its real-life consequences. This scene is merely the most egregious such moment in Of Gods and Men, but the film constantly brings up larger issues only to quietly forget about them. It reeks of indulgence towards the politically-correct art of not offending anyone and deflecting potential criticism, without ever having the guts to address such issues it brings up face-to-face for fear one’s thoughts on the matter might be wrong. This gutlessness I cannot abide, and it this gutlessness that disappoints me so much about Of Gods and Men.
The film’s director, Xavier Beauvois has directed a fine-looking film, that he has clearly put effort into; there is much I cannot criticise, from the acting and the film’s appreciation for the lives of its central characters and community they serve. But the direction itself is also marred by its very gutlessness and meekness in regards to larger issues. Contrast Of Gods and Men with another recent French film dealing with faith and religion, the fantastic Lourdes, directed by Austrian-born Jessica Hausner. That film deals with a paraplegic woman, played magnificently by Sylvie Testud, who, on a pilgrimage to the world-famous springs finds that, despite her scepticism, she is able to walk again. The film turns this revelation inside out however, and we as an audience are forced to directly question the nature of Testud’s beliefs and those around her. It is a film unafraid to look at itself and its subjects with a critical eye. This is where Of Gods and Men falls flat, and why it remains a formulaic European arthouse film.