By Christoph Huber

gods and men3Of the handful of promising filmmakers to emerge from France in the ‘90s, not many have withstood the test of time. While quite a few contenders seemed to disappear from view during the last decade, the star of Xavier Beauvois, who debuted in 1991 with the impressive semiautobiographical family drama Nord, has been rising steadily—and deservedly. While his third feature, the class-conscious amour fou tale Selon Matthieu (2000) didn’t have much of an international impact, Beauvois’ superb, slightly neurotic policier Le petit lieutenant (2005) turned out to be the biggest success of his career, despite having been snubbed by Venice competition. And at Cannes 2010, his marvelous, meditative monk movie Des hommes et des dieux became a critical favourite and won a justified Grand Prix, 15 years after Beauvois’ somewhat more controversial sophomore effort (and Jury Prize winner) N’oublie pas que tu vas mourir (1995). One of the reasons for Beauvois’ durability is undoubtedly his classical bent. Steadfastly rejecting stylistic fads, which are “doomed to go out of fashion again soon,” he has drawn on “naturalistic” modern and classical inspirations to forge his own kind of existential cinema. Cassavetes and Rossellini serve as his twin deities—their pictures hang on his office wall—but with most of the Cassavetes-love this year going, not entirely without reason, to Mathieu Amalric’s likeable neo-burlesque extravaganza Tournée, Beauvois seems to have come down on the Rossellini side of things. With its spiritual bent, its clear-eyed take on the price of freedom, its interest in harmony between man and nature, and its insistence on the quandaries of conscience and belief, Des hommes et des dieux shows certain undeniable affinities to Rossellini—although other sources of transcendental style come into play as well.

Reconstructing the case of the Tibherine monks—who were allegedly abducted and killed by Islamic fundamentalists during the Algerian Civil War in the mid-‘90s (although recently declassified documents point to the Algerian Army as the guilty party)—as a drama of belief as well as an immersive experience, Beauvois nevertheless manages to score with the secular camp as well. One reason must be his decidedly commonsensical approach; he’s at pains to distinguish between religious commitment and its abuse by extremists. Another is the astonishing formal dexterity with which Beauvois constructs his argument, working its way from a general concept of love and compassion towards its dutiful application, however hard, in a concrete situation; this gives the film a strong emotional pull. Despite its strong spiritual dimension, I couldn’t help flashing back to an interview with Beauvois at the time of Le petit lieutenant, when I baffled him with a question about his use of ceremonies in that film, which seem to act as an existential anchor, yet an ultimately useless comfort against loneliness. After opening optimistically with the title hero’s graduation at a provincial police academy, all subsequent rituals (and ritualistic congregations) in Le petit lieutenant become announcements of loss and death, culminating in two ceremonies that fail to provide solace: abject loneliness at a funeral and dead investigation time at a minutely observed baptism. Pausing for a while, recalling similar moments in his earlier features, and pointing out he isn’t a believer, Beauvois remained puzzled, ultimately admitting he’s never had any personal experience with these kind of ceremonies: “Only cinema has given them to me, not life.”

In a way, Des hommes et des dieux, could be seen as an answer to this quandary, prominently displaying the rituals of the monks as a source of hard-won strength, while doubling as a cinematic credo: It was one of the few Cannes Competition entries that emanated some kind of belief in the (positive) powers of filmmaking. Beauvois’ approach is leisurely by necessity, though no less forceful once the stakes are raised. The opening sequences take their time to draw the viewer into the monks’ world. Living in a monastery in the North African mountains, they interact peacefully with the Muslim locals, selling their Atlas honey on the market, chanting at regular intervals, and farming amidst grazing donkeys (who, take note, Monsieur Godard, are not—and needn’t be—abused metaphorically). Despite the tranquil harmony, the set-up remains unsentimental: the scenes between the monks and the Islamic community, or a few moments showing them giving sage advice to indigenous youngsters, are gentle introductions to themes that will escalate slowly, but mercilessly. Casually, the brothers share their frugal meals, honouring even the smallest potato slice with adequate humility. It’s hard not to be moved by the fragile sight of Michael Lonsdale, who plays the medicine monk, attending to the region’s sick with seasoned abandon, though amongst a strong ensemble, Lambert Wilson’s immaculately introverted portrayal of the community leader stands out, and not just for having the hardest weight to carry. Beauvois pays tribute by arranging stirring visual adagios as Wilson’s monk recedes on long walks, pondering the decision of whether to stay or go in lonely contemplation, even amidst torrential downpours.

The only visible violence happens early, and signals the turn of events: Balkan foreign workers are discovered mutilated and killed. Soon, the monks find themselves in the midst of chaos, but persist in following their orderly schedules. The threat by the fundamentalists presents an ever more pressing danger, forcefully manifested in a guerilla visit to the monastery for drugs, a situation barely controlled by an act of monkish courage, in which an appeal to basic principles of belief and life sparks a glint of mutual recognition in the enemy leader. It becomes increasingly clear to the monks that to follow through on their pledge of brotherhood with all men and stay with the poor will likely mean martyrdom. Meanwhile, the country’s officials also try to get the monks out, mostly to avoid a diplomatic incident, yet they refuse both an airlift and army protection. In a remarkable scene, an official chides them for their Western arrogance and luxuries of privilege—while they’re free to ponder the opportunities of salvation or flight, most people in this country are doomed to dream in vain of escape, and certainly wouldn’t hesitate, given the option. Ultimately, Beauvois gives the thorny decision apposite grace and weight. The process of reasoning includes spiritual, political, and individual arguments, and for all its tragic consequences, is not presented without humour: to stay, one monk reasons with the monk most given to doubts (not coincidentally, the youngest), is no more mad than having become a monk in the first place. Still, the serious subject demands a perfectly modulated construction, and Beauvois delivers by paralleling the philosophical and ethical conundrums with powerful images: One arcing shot of the monks chanting against the noise of military helicopters looming overhead (with a dwarving bird’s-eye perspective countershot) ranks among the small number of indelible experiences at this year’s Cannes.

Showing his unobtrusive skill, Beauvois masterfully recedes into a Dreyerian series of close-ups for the final section. After already having subversively framed a Muslim like a Christian painting, he proceeds to unlock the Da Vinci code for a moving last supper, in which the monks share a meal and wine, while Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” plays from a tape recorder; they beam in spiritual community, despite the visible toll of going through with their resolution to stay. Like Bertrand Tavernier’s mysteriously underrated La princesse de Montpensier—maybe because classic filmmaking schooled on Ulmer, Freda, or Curtiz doesn’t carry the same critical cachet as following Rossellini or Dreyer— Des hommes et des dieux is a film about conscience and the price you pay for following it. Maybe death and transcendence, as in Beauvois, make the pill easier to swallow than Tavernier’s take, which ends in utter loneliness and desolation. But both films are also proud examples of classical style, something that seems no less doomed than the monks. Nevertheless, one should not rule out the element of surprise: What to make of the fact that Beauvois’ ending, no doubt, entirely by accident, recalls the opening of Wakamatsu Koji’s poetic terror-tract United Red Army (2007)?

Follow

Friend me on FacebookFollow me on TwitterRSS Feed

From the Magazine

  • Cinema Scope 82: Table of Contents

    Interviews A State of Uncertainty: Tsai Ming-liang on Days by Darren Hughes New Possible Realities: Heinz Emigholz on The Last City by Jordan Cronk This More →

  • A State of Uncertainty: Tsai Ming-liang on Days

    There’s no exact precedent for the long creative collaboration between Tsai Ming-liang and Lee Kang-sheng. In 1991, as the story goes, Tsai stepped out of a screening of a David Lynch movie and spotted Lee sitting on a motorbike outside of an arcade. More →

  • New Possible Realities: Heinz Emigholz on The Last City

    The Last City, the new film by Heinz Emigholz, begins with a confession. “And it was a straight lie when I told you that I had an image that could describe the state of my depression,” admits a middle-aged archaeologist to a weapons designer (played, respectively, by John Erdman and Jonathan Perel, who were previously seen in Emigholz's 2017 film Streetscapes [Dialogue] as a filmmaker and his analyst). “I made that up.” Part reintroduction, part recapitulation, this abrupt admission sets the conceptual coordinates for a film that, despite its presentation and the familiarity of its players, is less a continuation of that earlier work’s confessional mode of address than a creative reimagining of its talking points. More →

  • This Dream Will Be Dreamed Again: Luis López Carrasco’s El año del descubrimiento

    Luis López Carrasco’s dense, devious El año del descubrimiento confirms his reputation as Spain’s foremost audiovisual chronicler of the country’s recent past, albeit one for whom marginal positions, materiality, everyday chitchat, and the liberating effects of fiction are as, if not more, important than grand historical events. More →

  • Long Live the New Flesh: The Decade in Canadian Cinema

    Let’s get it right out of the way: by any non-subjective metric—which is to say in spite of my own personal opinion—the Canadian filmmaker of the decade is Xavier Dolan, who placed six features (including two major Competition prizewinners) at Cannes between 2009 (let’s give him a one-year head start) and 2019, all before turning 30. Prodigies are as prodigies do, and debating Dolan’s gifts as a transnational melodramatist and zeitgeist-tapperis a mug’s game, one that I’ve already played in these pages. More →