Saturday, March 12, 2011

Towards the simple life

Coincidentally, a few days before seeing Xavier Beauvois’ new film Of Gods and Men, I watched one of the earliest films by the great Robert Bresson, Les anges du peche, made in 1943. It’s set in a convent, one where the nuns specialize in absorbing and rehabilitating women released from a local jail; an overly passionate new recruit, fixated in particular on the fate of one hardcore offender, throws off the equilibrium. For much of the time, if you look past what they’re wearing, the film could be about a secular community held together by common norms and purpose (perhaps its true subject is the resistance against the Nazi occupiers of the time); the ending draws on a notion of quasi-mystical transference, but a simpler and tidier one than the later Bresson would countenance. And I found myself wondering whether a narrative about monks or nuns could ever be primarily about God; notwithstanding the commitment inherent in the calling, doesn’t the sheer weight of existing for day after day, in however stripped down a fashion, entail that the greater space will always be filled by logistics, and that the act of labeling these as “religious” becomes as much ideological as transcendent?

Of Gods and Men

Of Gods and Men precisely extends this train of thought. It’s Algeria in 1996 (although the film only gives us the date at the very end, and never specifies the location); a group of eight French monks, none of them young, is long-established in a disadvantaged village, mixing easily with the locals and providing the only source of medical care. Unrest breaks out, putting them in danger; the authorities first ask the monks to accept military protection and then to leave the country, but they refuse, although not without internal debate. The conclusion is widely known, although I won’t specify it here; the film is more about the means than the end.

Beauvois’s film, which won the French equivalent of the best film Oscar, depicts the brotherhood in considerable detail, but his primary interest is social, and to a lesser extent political. The political aspect is in the suggestion that the long French occupation of Algeria sowed injustices and imbalances that ultimately bear the responsibility for later grievances and atrocities; the monks may be peacefully integrated into the community, but by their very existence they represent a relic of that imperial past (in this sense, the film gains additional resonance from ongoing events in the Middle East). But the film is primarily a study of a group forced to reevaluate its purpose and meaning, and God is a reference point primarily insofar as he manifests himself in their actions and contributions. Some of the most striking moments depict heightened states explicitly conditioned by earthly events: the men clutching together for support, chanting over the deafening noise of a military helicopter hovering above, or their complex reactions to a recording of Swan Lake. When one of the monks prays in anguish for guidance, it’s rather shockingly disruptive.

The Value of Life

In the end, chance dictates the fate of some of them, and the exact plan or strategy dictating the fate of the others remains unknown. The film is certainly suspenseful, in the Hitchcockian sense that we watch much of it with anticipatory dread. But its strength is in Beauvois’ meticulous, gloriously intuitive observation of their lives (all the more surprising because his previous film, Le Petit Lieutenant, was a contemporary police drama, although an unusually fluid and allusive one) and his exploration of the seemingly fundamental and yet largely absent question - not just absent from cinema, from the entire public sphere - of what a life, not even an overtly virtuous one, should amount to.

Some of the monks base their decisions to stay, at least insofar as they can articulate them, on being too old, or too long removed from all else. Of Gods and Men emphasizes the possibility of expressing their cause in the words of the Koran as readily as those of the Bible, and implies the monastic life may carry an uncomfortable degree of kinship with that of terrorists (or with some of them anyway). But in the end, you feel, this may all belong to the category of the rationalizations we come out with when asked to convert instincts into words. The tragedy of the universe isn’t that we fail to understand God, but that we barely have any inkling of what we should do as men.

Of Men and Fish

For all its achievement, Beauvois’ film isn’t radically unfamiliar; it leads us through a well-structured narrative, and we’ve all seen “slow” and “contemplative” films before. In contrast, Alamar, directed by Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio, feels like the product of an entirely different sensibility, if not a different world (like a number of recent releases, the film started running on SuperChannel within a week of opening at the Bell Lightbox, and is also out on DVD). It’s set in the Banco Chinchorro, a coral reef off the coast of Mexico, where a native fisherman spends some time with his young son, before the boy takes off to Italy with his mother. At least as shown in the film, life around the Banco is simple and largely unspoiled; the people live close to the water and the land. The protagonists are in some sense playing themselves, but much of what we see seems to fall in a zone between being too natural to be staged, and yet too beautiful and privileged to constitute merely what happened to wander before the camera.

The film is barely longer than an hour, as if it only reluctantly trusts us with its revelations, but it’s as graceful and uplifting an hour as you’ll ever spend. It doesn’t seem to me to plead for any indulgence toward the people – this isn’t an Avatar-like validation of noble primitivism, but rather the observation of a different innate rhythm and mode of interaction. But the prologue (presented in almost hallucinatory terms) and the boy’s very existence make clear their world and ours can productively meld, even if the last shot - where, reunited with his mother, he contents himself with blowing artificial bubbles – warns of the trivial commercial distractions that distort our sense of the miraculous. As I said, Alamar feels like the product of a different world, and I suppose in truth it’s a different world in which cinema wouldn’t have much of a place, just as it wouldn’t in the monastery of Of Gods and Men. It sometimes strikes me as ironic, that films are often most moving when refining our awareness of how we should aspire to move beyond, if not cinema itself, at least the culture that dominates most of its products.

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