Most people expect a simple thing out of each film they watch; they expect it to be worth the time invested into it. Whether that be from sheer entertainment value, or the chance to contemplate a particular character or subject for a particular length of time, for me, if a film is not worth the time needed to watch it, it has failed, no matter what its intent or purpose may have been. This can essentially mean that a film that one may come across may be absolutely perfectly made, right down to the finest detail, but at the sacrifice of the push to actually have the story told, or to the expense of entertainment value. Xavier Beauvois’ Of Gods and Men is a perfect example of this type of film; to watch it is to quite possibly watch a perfect film. The only problem is actually managing to get through the whole thing.
For those not in the know, this film is based on true events, that of the kidnapping and killing of seven Tibhirine monks by a rogue group of Muslims during the Algerian Civil War. The film’s mise en scene is straight out of the textbook for how to make a fantastically shot film, and each scene or shot, like so many other films on the list, could be a brilliant still photograph in its own right. There is no lack of stunning imagery to be found here, though none of it is so eye-wateringly beautiful that you can only stare at it in awe; a better word to use would be to simply say that the film’s look and feel is flawless. The film spends most of the set-up time contrasting the lifestyles and cultures of the monks and that of the Muslim community taking up in the foothills; the former is very obviously monastic and reserved, full of only simple pleasures and humble work, while the latter is alive with color and music and, most especially, passion. It is this fundamental difference that comes into prominence in both a good way, and the worst way, for everyone involved as the film goes on, and is the primary aspect of the film’s effect on its audience.
All of this, however, is meaningless if the film is not entertaining, and it is now that we come to the crux of what makes Of Gods and Men work and/or not work. For all that the film does right, the one major thing it doesn’t do right is keep you tied into the film and the fates of the monks in it; there’s just no reason to really care about anything that happens here. I grew more antsy as the film went on; this film was basically breaking all my rules for how a film should be, from not including extraneous material, from shots to whole scenes, to cutting out anything that doesn’t serve a purpose to the overall story (Chekhov’s Gun). Of Gods and Men was instead just content to be, without care as to the story being told or to keeping its audience interested or invested in the film. If a film has no interest in holding yours, then the mind becomes prompted to wander off into other things that do hold its interest; it’s a give-and-take relationship between the viewer and the film, and Of Gods and Men just expected us to give and give and for it to take and take and give nothing in return, until the end when the film and its story are fully completed. Only then do we feel any sort of satisfaction or contentment with what we have been watching, and I suspect a large part of that is only because our brains finally recognize that the film is over.
As much as I found this film unbelievably listless and direction-less (a very kind way of saying I found it totally boring), I couldn’t bring myself to outright hate the film; it is simply made too masterfully for me to do so. What I could hate was that so much effort and so much talent and skill had been put into a project and then just left to flounder there, like adding a slew of prime ingredients into a bowl and then just letting them sit there, without mixing or stirring them together to create the perfect blend needed for whatever dish or pastry it is you are making. There was a small part of me that was a slight bit disgusted at the wasted potential that this film showed, but there was more of me that just sat in awe at what potential there was to be found here. It is absolutely beautiful to watch, and to experience, but if you’re looking for an actual story, or even anything to care about, you will probably come up empty-handed with this one. I’m sorry to say it, but in my case, it was the truth.
Arbitrary Rating: 7/10