Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Cannes Dispatch #6 - "Of Gods and Men"

When it rains, it pours (and it actually rained today) - in one day, I walked past Gael Garcia Bernal and sat two rows behind Michelle Williams, Ryan Gosling, and Bollywood superstar Deepika Padukone. This was a bit of relief, not because I care all that much about star-searching, but because I can now tell stories that don't receive the immediate reaction of "Who?". Beyond shiny happy people, Cannes also provided a number of other odd insights yesterday, namely:

1. Press head into premiere screenings of competition films about a half hour before cast and crew members and other such notables, so you'd think that the paparazzi would know better. But as it turns out, if your neon-yellow press badge isn't clearly visible as you're walking up the red carpet, and you're dressed in some vaguely formal attire, photographers will not hesitate to unleash a flash-bulb fusillade.

2. If you're audacious enough to direct a 5 1/2 hour movie about international terrorism and present it at Cannes, as director of "Carlos" Olivier Assayas is, you are also audacious enough to enter your tuxedo-required premiere screening wearing a suit jacket over jeans and bright white sneakers.

3. The French apparently have no problem with leaving their phones on, answering their phones, or taking flash photography of the screen during screenings.

4. Walk-outs in the early morning screenings may be a less a function of film quality and more a function of industry people being hungover from their (presumably wild yacht) parties the night before. This possibility occurred to me when I noticed the pant-suited woman at the end of my row throwing up on her shoes during a not-particularly-disgusting movie.

5. If you decide to skip a movie (Lee Chang-dong's Poetry) because you'd like to sleep in before the 5.5 hour epic, by cosmic law, the film you skipped will be acclaimed as brilliant by everyone you speak to that day.

A shorter entry today, as "Carlos" is both fascinating and thoroughly exhausting to watch. More tomorrow on that film, the latest from Ken Loach, and the first Indian film to screen in a competition category in nearly a decade. But first, a review of the new film by Xavier Beauvois, which managed to overcome my immediate "Tropic Thunder"-induced skepticism.

Of Gods and Men (dir. by Xavier Beauvois) - In Competition

Xavier Beauvois' "Of Gods and Men" opens with pastoral calm. In a North African monastery, nine French monks tend their vegetable gardens, pray in respectful silence, and live peacefully with the Islamic village below the sloping hillside, providing them with advice and medical care and accepting gifts and respect. Coexistence seems written into the very landscape itself - the fertile soil of the monastery transitions gradually across the hillside into windswept Algerian sand, verdant trees and hills generously giving way to arid brush and plateaus.

It's serene - and of course, it can't last. Islamic radicalism encroaches - jihadis slit the throats of Croatian contractors at a local work-site, an occurrence that Beauvois shoots with Cronenbergian clarity. And so the audience naturally expects the worst when bandanna-clad rifle carriers force their way into the monastery gates. But Beauvois has no interest in making a simple story of martyrs versus demons - the fighters are only looking for medicine, though the monastery can't spare it. There's a tense chill as the head monk Christian (Lambert Wilson) and the rebel leader (Roschdy Zem) negotiate. Christian knows his Koran and recites a passage, and the leader, a man of genuine faith, respectfully defers. But it becomes clear through the conversation that the rebel's position amongst his people is precarious, and cooler heads may be losing their influence. Should the monks leave and abandon their flock?

Xavier Beauvois has a kind of clinical, detached style of filmmaking - long and static shots that often keep their distance from his characters - that can recall Michael Haneke, except for the fact that Beauvois actually has faith in humanity. His underrated last film, "The Young Lieutenant", would probably be categorized as a crime thriller by the time the credits rolled, but the first half of the movie was comparatively light on incident and heavy on calm observation. It instead soaked us in the rhythms of the lives of the characters, following their daily routines (not quite in "Aurora" detail, mind you) and keeping an eye out for the nuances of their interactions with each other, so that when dramatic incident arises, the audience has a much better grasp on how this changes the world of those in the film.

Beauvois uses that method again in "Gods", which is based on the real-life tragedy that befell a monastery of Trappist monks in Algeria in 1996. This time, however, the rhythm that his characters live in is one of fear and uncertainty. Beauvois dispassionately watches the monks as they waver in their decision to stay and continue to pray, for deliverance, for strength to match their convictions, for courage to accept their fate. And this plot focus is exactly why Beauvois' clinical nature as a filmmaker is absolutely critical - for most materials, addressing topics like this would no doubt lead to mawkishness or sanctimony (and this film does in a few moments), but understatement in formal terms and restraint in the performances lets the audience feel the full weight of the emotions at play without feeling unduly manipulated. Lambert Wilson, who was in perhaps the worst film in competition ("The Princess of Montpensier"), has now given one of the festival's best performances in one of its best films, portraying a man who has spent his life studying Islam and gaining the respect of its believers, only to see the world he so respects turning on him.*

"Gods" is probably too long (after a climactic epiphany, the time until the ending starts to feel a bit like repetitive padding) and it occasionally veers into excessive sentimentality (one scene has the monks joining together in song to drown out the noise of an army helicopter). But for the most part, it's a film of incredible force. The psychological process that the characters go through is understandably poignant, but Beauvois even manages to capture silent prayer in a way that's surprisingly affecting. In one scene, a monk prays in a shot lit by a single candle that's visible only as a small speck on the screen, a glimmer of light staving off overwhelming darkness. And the ending left me a wreck. In the final shots, we see aggressors marching the monks off screen into the distance, solid shapes slowly transforming into ghosts of their former selves. Beauvois also shows a montage of various shots of his landscape. Those features of the landscape that were so prominent early on the film have now been obscured by a dusting of snow, obliterating the memory of a land that once exemplifies the values of brotherhood and peace.

*Weird Dissonance of the Day: Lambert Wilson deciding to make out with the woman who plays his teenage disciple in the film on the red carpet before his premiere.

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