‘Of Gods and Men’ – Film Review

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January 8, 2014 by lucieromarin

‘Of Gods and Men’ – the story of Trappist monks in Algeria who decide to remain with the local Muslim population, despite the increasing terrorist activity which eventually claims their lives – was recommended to me by a non-Catholic, and one who usually bursts into flame at the merest whisper of religion, at that.

I watched it yesterday. You should see it; it was proof that faith doesn’t have to produce second-rate films (coughforgreaterglorycough) and I’ve been asking myself two questions ever since: 1) why wasn’t my religion-hating friend repelled by this film? and 2) why haven’t I heard anything in the Catholic loop about it, though I have heard about ‘For Greater Glory,’ and ‘Bella’ and ‘The Rite’?

I suppose the answer to the first question is that the film is primarily a work of art; it allows the men of faith to share that faith insofar as it explains who they are, but it doesn’t make the transmission of that faith the explicit or implicit purpose of the story. The viewer isn’t transported to a series of ideas or propositions, but to a place and its people and to the particular sufferings of those people.

Much of the film’s success, depends too, I think, on the score – or on the lack of it. There’s often silence where a lesser filmmaker would have used cliched background music (flutes while the monk wanders about in contemplation; strings while he looks heroically to heaven as his captors approach, and so on); the sort which, by telling you very loudly how to feel, actually removes you from the immediacy of the characters’ experience. (There was one use of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Swan Lake’ that I found a bit obvious, but I could see why it was chosen.)  This, in turn, gave the chant (both Christian and Muslim) far more power than it would have had, had it been set between unnecessary pieces.

Hmmm…I’ve just reread this, and I think I’ve made it sound very boring. It wasn’t – it was engaging and beautiful and made me think (including about how much I wished that lesser actors would watch it to learn how to act!).

As for the second question…well, I suppose the fact that I haven’t heard anything about it in the Catholic loop doesn’t actually prove that no one ever mentioned it. Maybe I just missed all those conversations. My guess is that, if it was overlooked, it was because of a combination of being French and mildly sympathetic to Islam (and also because no one was young and handsome). But that’s just a guess.

Meanwhile, I’m taking my own advice and going on a holiday. I’m travelling interstate to see an exhibition of maps at the National Library, and glassblowers at the Glassworks. I’ll be back by Sunday.

4 thoughts on “‘Of Gods and Men’ – Film Review

  1. Amanda says:

    It was an amazing film – saw it at the cinema when it came out. I don’t think one needed to be religious to appreciate it: from what I remember, like you say, it was so subtle and powerful that it sort of transcended specifics and became about humanity itself.

    Speaking of potentially ‘Catholic’ (?) films, have you seen ‘Into Great Silence’? I bought it on DVD ages ago (inspired by this one, actually) but have to admit that I haven’t watched it yet: could do with some encouragement if you have and liked it.

    • lucieromarin says:

      I haven’t seen it; though one person I do trust told me it’s worth seeing the long version to the end because there’s a kind of surprise or revelation that gives new meaning to everything you’ve seen before it. I liked the scenes I saw on youtube – I just still go a little faint at the thought of how long the film is!

  2. Cojuanco says:

    You have to understand that For Greater Glory was essentially in retrospect a part of a propaganda campaign against the anticlerical measures of the American government, in the dashed hopes that it might convince people to kick out the incumbent. This was in Spanish-speaking areas also linked with the fact that the government of the day was also deporting said Spanish-speakers, though that failed to move members of the other party on migration, which dampened its effectiveness.

    It was not meant to be artistically done. It was meant to rally and outrage Catholic voters in the United States in the run up to the general election. I think that’s a problem with a lot of Catholic art and literature these days – it’s more for propaganda than art. Not that there cannot be a propagandistic element in good art (see Alexander Nevsky) but too often it is done as propaganda first, art second.

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