“Of Gods and Men” (“Des hommes et des dieux”) (2010). Cast: Lambert Wilson, Michael Lonsdale, Olivier Rabourdin, Philippe Laudenbach, Jacques Herlin, Loïc Pichon, Xavier Maly, Jean-Marie Frin, Olivier Perrier, Farid Larbi, Abdelhafid Metalsi. Director: Xavier Beauvois. Screenplay: Xavier Beauvois. Story: Etienne Comar. www.sonyclassics.com/ofgodsandmen/
“In a Better World” (“Hævnen”) (2010). Cast: Mikael Persbrandt, Trine Dyrholm, Markus Rygaard, Toke Lars Bjarke, Ulrich Thomsen, William Jøhnk Juels Nielsen, Elsebeth Steentoft, Simon Maagaard Holm, Kim Bodnia, Odiege Matthew, Wil Johnson. Director: Susanne Bier. Screenplay: Anders Thomas Jensen. www.sonyclassics.com/inabetterworld/
What kind of world do we want to create for ourselves? Given the many changes that are transpiring around the globe these days, this has become an increasingly important question in the minds of many of us (especially with the fast approach of 2012 and all that might potentially entail). To answer that question, of course, it’s vital that we address what qualities we wish to imbue that world with, a consideration explored in two recently released foreign language films, the French biopic “Of Gods and Men” and the Danish drama “In a Better World.”
Based on actual events, “Of Gods and Men” recounts the story of a group of French Trappists living in a rural Algerian monastery in the mid 1990s. For years, these devout Christian brothers lived peacefully beside their Islamic neighbors, providing social services and medical assistance to the locals while quietly promoting interfaith and communal harmony. In late 1995, however, things changed dramatically in Algeria; Muslim fundamentalist rebels began terrorizing the country with acts of atrocity, primarily targeting foreigners and others who didn’t share their dogmatic religious and political views. The violence eventually reached the countryside, putting the monastery and the surrounding community in peril. And, to make matters worse, the government was largely unable to prevent or intercede in these incidents, making it difficult for officials to guarantee the public’s safety. In fact, things ultimately became so dangerous in the region that the local Wāli (Abdelhafid Metalsi) encouraged the monks to leave.
Given these circumstances, the brothers were now faced with a dilemma—should they stay or go? This question prompted considerable soul-searching among them, with some wanting to remain and others anxious to leave. Guiding the flock through this period of profound introspection was the group’s leader, Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson), who reminded them of their faith and their commitment while wrestling with some challenges in his own thinking. These issues became particularly acute when the brothers were confronted by local rebel strongman Ali Fayattia (Farid Larbi) during a late night raid on the monastery, an incident that could have exploded but took a surprising turn and yielded an uneasy truce. However, that standoff’s outcome also made government officials suspicious of the monks, believing they might be rebel sympathizers.
Caught between two opposing forces, the brothers now faced their biggest challenge of all—finding a way to stay alive under highly precarious conditions, a test that required them to dig deeply into their reserves of inner strength. It also called upon them to become clear about their beliefs, particularly those related to intimidation, conviction and, above all, courage.
“In a Better World,” by contrast, presents a fictional story but one that addresses many of the same issues raised in “Of Gods and Men.” Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) is an overseas aid physician who divides his time between his home in Denmark and his field hospital in Africa. In addition to caring for his regular patients, Anton has the unenviable task of attempting to heal the hideously disfigured victims of a local strongman (Odiega Matthew), who coercively seeks to control others through perverse acts of savagery, a circumstance that troubles Anton deeply. As a highly principled man of peace and compassion, Anton seeks to employ his ethics in all his undertakings, an approach to life that can be trying at times, especially when his feelings become conflicted or when he must confront his own failings. This is apparent not only in the field but also when he’s home on leave, where he’s faced with the challenges of salvaging his marriage with his estranged wife, Marianne (Trine Dyrholm), and maintaining ties with his sons, Elias (Markus Rygaard) and Morten (Toke Lars Bjarke). Through it all, though, Anton genuinely strives to exemplify the principles of pacifism and empathy he holds so dearly, no matter what arises.
Like his father, Elias experiences his own share of intimidation, mainly from the schoolyard bully, Sofus (Simon Maagaard Holm). But that situation changes when an unlikely rescuer walks into Elias’s life, his new classmate, Christian (William Jøhnk Juels Nielsen). Having recently lost his mother to cancer, Christian handles his grief by emulating the steely resolve she took in battling her illness, eschewing all forms of weakness and relying on his ample courage when dealing with life’s difficulties. His personal strength becomes most evident in his defense of the tormented (which is how he quickly brings Sofus’s bullying of Elias to an end). But, in his attempts to embolden others and make the world a safer place, Christian’s ideology turns fanatical, leading him to engage in acts of retribution against the intimidators that are even more harsh than those they initially commit; the champion of the victim thus becomes the victimizer. And, as the story leads to its culmination, Christian’s well-meaning though misdirected ideology eventually leads him and Elias into dangerous territory, especially when, ironically, it comes into conflict with the ethics that Anton has earnestly tried to impart to both of them.
The characters in both of these films struggle with some weighty issues, such as heroism, pacifism, courage, faith, intimidation and compassion, to name a few. And both pictures demonstrate that the beliefs we hold regarding these issues clearly play central roles in how the outcomes unfold, for better or worse. From a conscious creation perspective, this is significant for a variety of reasons, most notably where the issue of choice is involved. We’re not locked into a single line of probability to address the circumstances we face; we have multiple options open to us, and all of them are equally valid, even if some are seemingly less desirable than others (as both of these films illustrate as well).
These pictures also raise a number of interesting questions in connection with the foregoing issues. For instance, is might always “right”? Are there times when it’s “wrong,” even when seemingly justified? When is it appropriate to turn the other cheek? Are courage and heroism always the most fitting response, or are there times when a prudent retreat would be a wiser course? Does compassion have limits? Are noble ideologies absolute, or are they mutable, given the prevailing circumstances? When does a laudable notion turn fanatical?
In all of these instances, there are no easy answers, and the characters in these films discover this for themselves as well. One can hope, however, that their experiences help provide us with ideas and inspiration for how to handle comparable situations when they arise in our own lives. This is especially true when viewed through the lens of the mass consciousness, for the world we collectively create and experience truly originates with who we are and what we believe.
“Of Gods and Men” and “In a Better World” provide much food for thought about the nature of the reality we manifest for ourselves. Both are technically well made (especially the cinematography), and the performances in each picture are generally solid, though the films do have their faults. “Gods,” for instance, drags somewhat in spots; its attempt to cinematically reinforce the idyllic nature of the monastic life through the incorporation of beautiful images for their own sake grows tiresome after a while, with many such shots coming across more like filler than substance. And, as for “World,” its unusual narrative, though compelling, feels incomplete, leaving viewers a little hungry at film’s end. However, these shortcomings aside, both movies have messages worthy of serious consideration.
These two films have received their share of recognition, too. “Gods” came up a winner at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, capturing the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury and receiving a nomination for the Palme d’Or, the festival’s highest honor. “World,” meanwhile, scored wins as best foreign language film at this year’s Oscar and Golden Globe ceremonies. Both films are playing in limited runs, but DVD releases are likely to follow soon.
“We are what we believe” is a notion that’s becoming increasingly relevant these days, and many of us are awakening to the idea that it applies to us as a whole and not just individually. The inspiration and enlightenment provided by films like this could play an important part in helping us understand what kind of world we want to create for ourselves as we move forward into the future.
Copyright © 2011, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.