We have our martyrs and they have theirs. The eight gentle Trappist monks depicted in Of Gods and Men uphold the faith that brought them from France to Algeria, only to be abducted and massacred, presumably by fanatics of a rival religious persuasion.
Winner of the Grand Prix last year at Cannes and based on a 1996 event that continues to resonate in France, Of Gods and Men has proved a considerable crowd-pleaser on its home turf—topping the French box-office charts for three weeks last September and grossing upward of $23 million while inspiring critics with its Christian values, as well as the nobility of its response to both terror and, more generally, “the Islamist surge.”
The movie opens on a festive note, with a bit of the 81st Psalm (“Sing aloud to God our strength”) and a panoramic view of the Algerian (actually Moroccan) hills. Perched just outside an impoverished-looking Arab village, the monastery is also a clinic—the locals line up each morning for medical attention. The monks are well integrated into the community; they are seen attending a neighborhood celebration and partaking in the Muslim service (which is notably tolerant of other religions).
All are kindly, even lovable, souls, but only two have much depth. The abbot (Lambert Wilson) is an Arabic scholar who can be heard to murmur insha’Allah and dares to quote from the Koran to the rebel fundamentalists of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA). The doctor (Michael Lonsdale, stooped and swaddled) dispenses not only meds but romantic advice. Save for Jacques Herlin’s wizened cutie pie, the rest are less differentiated than the Seven Dwarfs. Uniformly pious, they give glory to God in solemnly symmetrical shots of group prayers and unison singing, cultivate their garden, and raise honeybees. Life is idyllic until a terrorist attack on some Croatian workers makes it evident, as the abbot says, that “staying here is as mad as being a monk.”
The authorities ask them to leave; the villagers want them to remain. After much prayer and discussion, the brothers decide to stay, perhaps under sentence of death, refusing military protection even after the GIA pays a Christmas Eve visit. Given that the Algerian army is less sympathetic to the monks than are the terrorists, it would seem that Beauvois subscribes to, but never actually advances, a view that emerged long after the event: namely, that the monks were collateral damage in an army air raid on a GIA camp.
Contemplative as it means to be, Of Gods and Men is not without generic excitement. Beauvois has characterized it as a “couscous Western.” (Unfortunately, the big scene—a beatific last supper—is set to the climax of Swan Lake and is thus unavoidably hijacked by the passion of Natalie Portman.) The story resembles that of Claire Denis’s White Material, in which a family of European coffee planters have their existence jeopardized by a chaotic African civil war. Beauvois’s film is cool while Denis’s is hot—but the main difference is that where White Material is knowingly postcolonial, Of Gods and Men aspires to the timeless.
Writing on its French reception, New York Times reporter Steven Erlanger unsentimentally noted that the movie seemed “strangely ignorant of the colonial implantation that the monastery represents.” Beauvois has no sense of the monks’ otherness or the notion that while the brothers enjoy their piece of heaven, those around them might be suffering in hell.
The eponymous protagonist of Robert Bresson’s 1951 Diary of a Country Priest, revived for a two-week run in a fine, newly subtitled 35mm print, is a martyr of a different order—and the perpetually overcast French village to which he is assigned is less hospitable than Algeria. Tormented by suspicious parishioners and his own spiritual anguish, the young priest (Claude Laydu) lives on stale bread soaked in wine, burning the candle of his devotion at both ends as he becomes unduly involved with the domestic drama unfolding at the local château.
Adapted from George Bernanos’s near-classic 1937 novel, Bresson’s movie is almost as demanding in its purity as the priest; as André Bazin observed, there is neither character development nor psychological analysis. The movie is experiential: The priest’s suffering is not to be explained but lived. At the same time, Bresson is extraordinarily faithful to Bernanos’s premise; the action is explicated by the priest’s voiceover narration and regularly punctuated by shots of his journal entries as they’re being written.
Its every sound and image unobtrusively precise, Diary of a Country Priest is a movie of emphatic understatement: contemplative yet abrupt, eloquent and blunt, oblique but lucid. The priest is a contradictory personality—self-effacing, willful, and honest to a fault in his attempt to save the château’s mistress (the movie’s only professional actress) from a despair he recognizes all too well in himself. When Diary of a Country Priest opened here in 1954, New York Times critic Bosley Crowther appreciated Bresson’s “brilliant” technique, but found the narrative “elusive and obscure.” Bresson wrote to Crowther, blaming the film’s American distributor, a precursor to Harvey Scissorhands, for re-editing the film and, in effect, deranging his scrupulous adaptation of Bernanos’s text.
A masterpiece that would be the template for all of Bresson’s subsequent films, Diary of a Country Priest is characterized above all by a search for authenticity. The function of art, the filmmaker maintained, “is to tie new relationships between persons and things which are, and as they are.” How do you document a soul? As Bresson’s first film in the six years since Les dames du Bois de Boulogne, Diary was clearly influenced by Italian neorealism—shot entirely on location with non-actors and a measure of social criticism. In his recent book on Bresson, Tony Pipolo suggests that the movie’s concluding durational shots were inspired by Rossellini’s Open City and Paisan: “It would be hard to find comparable use of the static long take until the mature work of Antonioni or the avant-garde cinema of the 1960s.”
Few artists since the Renaissance have so convincingly wed the aesthetic to the spiritual. Diary’s final shot makes its allegory absolutely apparent even as the priest’s last words—“All is grace”—suggest cinema itself is the holy sacrament.