Friday, February 25, 2011

Reverend's Reviews: Monk-y Business

As we have learned throughout history, long past and recent, faith in God can be as divisive a force among people as it can be unifying. Two new releases illustrate this conundrum well if via wildly different genres.

Of Gods and Men (which opens today in LA and NYC prior to a national rollout) arrives laden with laurels, having won both the Grand Prix and the Ecumenical Jury Prize at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival as well as the award for Best Foreign Language Film of 2010 by the National Board of Review. It is a fact-based drama set in Algeria and focused on a devoted community of Trappist monks from France. As Christian men serving in a predominantly Muslim region, the peace-loving monks of Tibhirine found themselves targeted when civil war broke out there in the mid-1990s.

The men spend their days providing medical and other human services (including, in one touching scene, dispensing love advice) to the poor villagers outside their monastery walls. At morning and evening, they pray and eat together, the latter often in silence. Informed that Islamic extremists have seized control of the military and ordered all foreigners out of the country, the monks must decide whether to leave or to stay with the people they have been called to serve, even if it costs them their lives.

Sensitively written and directed by Xavier Beauvois (The Young Lieutenant), Of Gods and Men bears similarities in plot and tone to 1986's The Mission. The monks here face not only political conflicts but inter-personal trials as well. The cast, headed by Lambert Wilson (Catwoman, The Matrix Reloaded), is exceptional, and veteran actor Michael Lonsdale (probably best known in the US as the affect-less Bond villain Hugo Drax in Moonraker, which is curiously omitted from Lonsdale's resume) radiates Christian virtue and humility as the doctor in the house.

Much of the film is set at Christmas time and frequent, increasingly ironic mention is made of Jesus as "the Prince of Peace." The scriptural teaching that "love endures everything" also gains heightened significance in light of the monks' plight. Finally, inspired use is made of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake score during the movie's climax, even if it might strike some as overly familiar in the wake of Black Swan. Of Gods and Men definitely heeds the swan's call: making the ultimate sacrifice for love.

Meanwhile, Black Death (opening March 11) is essentially a horror movie that finds its basis in the prejudice and intolerance that religious extremism can breed. Despite its numerous scenes of torture and mutilation, the film emerges as a more mature and thought provoking exercise than I anticipated. It helps immensely that the production team behind last year's wonderful, Oscar-nominated The Last Station is responsible.

A monk is also the central figure in this intriguing story. Young Father Osmund (Eddie Redmayne, recently seen in the TV miniseries Pillars of the Earth) all too eagerly volunteers to guide a retinue of knights seeking a mysterious village that is rumored to be immune from the plague sweeping the rest of Europe. Rumor also has it that the commune in question is led by a sorcerer with the power to raise the dead. The local bishop has charged the knights with capturing the necromancer and slaughtering anyone who opposes them... all in the name of Jesus, naturally.

Fr. Osmund is anxious to accompany the crusaders because his secret girlfriend is waiting for him in the vicinity where they are headed. Little goes as planned once they arrive at the village, which turns out to be led by a lovely-seeming woman (Dutch actress Carice Van Houten) who is more than a bit critical of Christianity due to its followers' history of committing violence, despite the intentions of the faith's peace-loving namesake. Osmund understandably finds himself beginning to question his commitment to the Lord. Of course, not all is at it seems in the land of the possibly-undead.

I would have preferred a bit more nuance in Black Death, not only during the violent scenes but also during its theological debates. Still, the writing and the acting are good (Sean Bean plays the head knight and longtime screen baddie David Warner also appears, nicely against-type, as Osmund's wise abbot) and the production values impeccable. The film more than proves the point that whether one is Christian, Muslim, Pagan, Jewish, of any other faith or even of no faith, intolerance of other religions is always horrific once it raises its ugly head.

Reverend's Ratings:
Of Gods and Men: A-
Black Death: B

UPDATE: Of Gods and Men is available on DVD and Blu-ray and Black Death is available on DVD and Blu-ray from

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Blade California.

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