“OF GODS AND MEN” (Now available)
Infuriating DVD packaging.
“Of Gods and Men” is one of the year’s finest films. This French release, winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes last year, centers on the monks of the Tibehirine Monastery in Algeria’s Atlas Mountains, who in 1996 were abducted by Islamic revolutionaries then waging war against the government.
Several months later the monks’ severed heads were returned to the monastery for burial.
Happily, this isn’t a film about dying. Rather, Xavier Beauvois has made a movie about living.
“Of Gods and Men” follows the holy brothers over three years leading up to their deaths. They are aware of the dangers they face. Other foreigners have been murdered and kidnapped. They recognize that for some Algerians they represent the hated face of a colonial power that had to be violently evicted in order to establish an independent nation.
Over communal meals the monks debate whether to return to France. They eventually turn down the government’s offer to assign an army unit to provide protection.
Matters of personal safety are less important to these men than the work they’ve been doing in bringing medical care to their Muslim neighbors.
Far from being a melodrama, this movie mostly resembles the great documentary “Into Great Silence” about life in a French monastery where the monks take vows of silence. Beauvois aims to capture the essence of the cloistered life — the hours of quiet introspection, obedience to a higher cause and, most moving of all, supremely beautiful moments of brotherhood.
Lead by two brilliant performances — Lambert Wilson as the soft-spoken but determined abbot and veteran Michael Londsdale as the monastery’s crusty but kind old physician — this film is a deeply moving portrait of men risking death in the name of something bigger than themselves. You don’t need to be religious for this film to rock you.
In fact, the monks’ deaths are not depicted. We last see them trudging up a fog-shrouded mountain, accompanied by their captors.
Now about the DVD release…There are only two extras: an 18-minute documentary “The Sacrificed Tibehirine: Further Investigation,” and a 40-minute interview with John W. Kiser, author of a book about the monks.
“Further Investigation” talks to family members of the dead monks and looks at the upswing in public interest in their story in France. We are able to compare photos of the real monks with the actors who portrayed them. And the documentary camera takes us to the now-abandoned and ghostly monastery.
But neither the doc nor the Kiser interview address one of the most fascinating aspects of the Tibehirine story: Allegations that the monks were not murdered by their rebel captors but died in a government attack on the camp where they were being held.
According to one widely debated version of the events, Algerian military leaders then had the dead monks’ heads removed and their bodies destroyed, thus hiding evidence of how they died and leaving the impression that they were cruelly decapitated by their captors.
ls the story plausible? What’s the evidence?
Keep asking, because nowhere in this DVD package is the issue — a huge scandal in France — even raised. There’s a telling moment in the documentary when a surviving monk recalls how he defied the Algerian military by demanding that the dead monks’ caskets be opened…and finding only heads, no bodies.
And with that tantalizing revelation the documentary abruptly stops. No final credits. It’s like an axe came down.
Which is weird, because when in 2006 the doc played on French TV — under the title “La Testament de Tibehirene” — it ran for nearly an hour. It’s pretty obvious that the film was cut by two thirds before being included in this package…and that the portions trimmed addressed the controversy over just how the Tibehirene brothers died.
What the hell?
Granted, the French government has pussyfooted for the last decade on the issue. Apparently there was a reluctance in diplomatic circles to alienate France’s former colony by digging too deeply into inflammatory possibilities.
Could the French and/or Algerian governments actually censor a documentary extra on an American home vid release?
It all smells pretty fishy.
So get this DVD for the movie. Then watch the extras and get steamed.
| Robert W. Butler