Holiness II

film 2 of 4

Of Gods and Men

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jun 3, 2015

This inevitably recalls country priests of the cinematic past, but there is much more than mere echoing going on here. Of Gods and Men earns Bressonian comparisons on its own terms. Processes of devotion, both ritualized/liturgical and pragmatic/practical, are laid out in detail and at length. There’s no rushing or sweetening or apologizing. The film, like its historical subjects, is in it for the long run.

There’s also something that’s strikingly, wonderfully un-Bressonian at work here. Joy, specifically, as in that early wedding sequence, or the simple pleasure of physical objects and little processes, or the smiles that quietly, quite frequently steal across everyone’s faces. The film isn’t insular or hermetical or anything, as its political components are actually quite effectively communicated. Certain information is withheld, to make the viewer work, to suggest the only partial political orientation of the dedicated missionary, to affirm, ultimately, that in this world we will find tribulation. These monks, these dear men were murdered, after all. But if Of Gods and Men provides real insight into the realities of faction, violence and the exercise of power, then it is also convincing about how very secondary these things finally are. What was it that Georges Bernanos, the author of Diary of a Country Priest, said? “What does it matter? All is grace.”

And, as Martin Luther averred (Concerning Christian Liberty, etc.), the workings of grace motivate the beneficiaries of that grace to perform Christ-like works. Director Xavier Beauvois is not quite using the transcendental style as articulated by Paul Schrader, and as best exemplified, for him, by Bresson. Here, as in Schrader, the everyday is multiplied. But unlike Schrader it is not multiplied unto disparity, or pain, or Passion. Rather, we are perceiving the experience and insight of the gardener or the doctor, the day care worker or the parent—there’s nothing depressing or humiliating, nothing particularly in need of rectification when you labour in something to which, on behalf of others to whom you are devoted.

Of Gods and Men is, in fact, a profound testimony to the saving satisfaction of loving service. If it properly touches upon the agonies that can come around the margins of service—we doubt, or falter, or just feel sad—then those uncertainties lead even more surely to the film’s marvelously sustained conclusion, and its marvelous affirmation. The monks love these people, and the people love them. Then the monks die for these people, and the whole trajectory is blessed. Jesus.