Xavier Beauvois's Of Gods and Men played this Saturday and Monday at the 48th New York Film Festival. Sony Classics will release the film next year.
Films about religious faith that come from a secular perspective free themselves from the burden of advocating dogma or tenets: the ritualized, physical aspects of devotion are hypnotic in and of themselves, even for non-believers. And Xavier Beauvois knows physical: his last feature, 2005’s Le Petit Lieutenant, is as nuts-and-bolts depiction of routine police drudgery as there is. So why is Of Gods and Men—his chronicle of the last days of French Trappist monks killed in Algeria in 1996 as sharia-advocating insurgents ran riot—so strangely enervated? Religious devotion should be filmed ascetically, as Bresson showed by example and films like Alain Cavalier’s Therese wisely copied; Beauvois treats monkish ritual like an editorial timekeeping device in an otherwise conventional film.
The story couldn’t be timelier and Beauvois knows it: perhaps that’s why there’s no overt indication of time and place. Conveniently, the head monk is named Christian (Lambert Wilson), and he runs his monastery as a community-interfaith-strengthening-type venture, studying the Koran and providing medical care for the locals. Trouble comes with guns, beards and perversions of Islamic intent, scrupulously decried by the locals. “They haven’t read the Koran!” one fulminates—a point somewhat undermined when Christian trades quotations with a fierce bandleader who storms the monastery with arms, demanding care. He leaves in peace, won over by Christian’s parallel devotion; those who succeed him don’t even have that scruple, an ambiguity the film glosses over.
There’s nothing overtly wrong with Of Gods and Men, which is sharply composed, understatedly performed and eager to avoid any potential sensationalism. In Lieutenant, that patience paid off; Gods has even more killings and blood, but dramatically it’s watery. The problem’s mostly negative, reducing religion on both sides to chanting and ritual, with colorful birthday depictions respectfully presented for Muslims and hymns to Christ for the cowled ones. What’s missing is a kernel of religious fever from either side; the film’s on the outside, so worried about being offensive it can’t plausibly burrow into the head of true believers.
Politically, Beauvois is sharp: the monks are at one point dressed down by a local official who isn’t having any of their “so sad” reactions. “I’m sad for my country,” he responds, “but I’m angry too. I wish it would grow up.” When it comes to internal conflict, though, the most Beauvois can muster up is Christian broodingly strolling deserted landscapes and a few Persona-style freakouts. The outside world is as we know it, but the monks don’t transform our view of it.