Of Gods and Men

A small outpost near the city of Algiers is the long time home for a tiny band of Trappist monks who have dedicated their lives to help the sick and poor among the mainly Muslim locals. They have lived in harmony with their neighbors and the abbey is a peaceful oasis in a country entering the throes of civil war. That war, though, will rear its ugly head and the eight monks and their faith will be put under the most severe test “Of Gods and Men.”

Laura's Review: A-

A French Catholic monastery in a poor Algerian community provides medical services and charitable aid while working side by side with the locals and trading Trappist goods at the local market. But a civil war means extremists have begun to terrorize the countryside and the eight monks who live among the Muslims must decide whether to leave or stand beside them in "Of Gods and Men." Writer/director Xavier Beauvois ("Le petit lieutenant") has made a deeply moving docudrama based on a true story which uses music in provocative ways. He begins with an almost jaunty piano piece as we observe the monks, then punctuates his film with sequences where the monks chant psalms whose words comment upon their current situation. The film has no actual score, but climaxes with Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake in an incredibly moving scene of acceptance, brotherhood and beauty. The monks' leader, Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson, "The Matrix Revolutions," "Private Fears in Public Places"), is an academic who studies religions, particularly the religion of the people they live amongst, Muslims who decry such acts as the killing of a young woman who dared to board a bus without wearing a veil. Christian's knowledge of the Koran helps him form a tenuous understanding with Ali Fayattia (Farid Larbi, "A Prophet"), the leader of an extremist arm who muscle their way into the monastery on Christmas night, demanding that Brother Luc (Michael Lonsdale, "The Last Mistress," "Agora") leave with them to treat one of their own. The Wali offers military protection and their own country demands that they leave Algeria, but the eight decide to find their own paths. Brother Christophe (Olivier Rabourdin, "13 Tzameti," "Taken") struggles the most mightily, but eventually the monks all decide to stay. Beauvois fortells their fate, once as Luc examines his assistant, Brother Amédée (Jacques Herlin, "The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc"), the eldest among them, later when Christian is called to identify the body of Fayattia. Amidst all this religious and political upheaval is a reverie on the beauty of life as seen in the everyday. Christophe tills a garden with a local girl. They bend and dig, planting, and after a hard day's work stand together in the sunset. Brother Luc washes dishes. Others tend to beehives, harvesting honey to be sold in the market. Simple meals are shared with pleasure. The film is very well acted, each of the monks forging a distinct personality. Six of the monks perished and although their exact fate is unknown Beauvois's imagining is a stunner. An equal mystery is why France's submission for the Foreign Language Oscar failed to win a nomination.

Robin's Review: B+

12-year old Bo is frustrated with her isolated life. Her parents have always lived off of the land, using their wits and talents to eke out an existence that most would call primitive. In the Groden home there is no telephone, no TV and no indoor toilet. There is no electricity, no plumbing save for a single hand pump and the only modern convenience is a beat up old pickup truck. But, Bo has an inquisitive nature, an active imagination and a home-taught education that allows her to grow and become her own person. She is also a crackerjack shot with a rifle, can handle a bow and arrow and supplies her family with bits of game to supplement Arlene's bountiful vegetables. Charley, Bo's father, the persona of Old West masculinity and strength has recently fallen victim to a constant bout of depression and anxiety and has, pretty much, stopped participating in the Groden family life. Arlene stoically and optimistically keeps things going and enlists the assistance of Charley's best friend George (J.K. Simmons), with his phone company provided health insurance, to go to a psychiatrist, feign depression and get some drugs for her stricken husband. Instead, George falls in love with his shrink and doesn't get the drugs. A handsome young stranger, William Gibbs of the IRA, arrives and is startled to see Arlene tending to her garden - totally starkers except for her straw sunbonnet. As he uncomfortably stammers why he is there - to perform an audit on the Grodens and find out why they have not filed their income tax statements for six years - a bee stings him. William has an immediate allergic reaction, swells up and passes out. He spends the next several days sleeping and hallucinating as Arlene treats him with her folk remedies. Slowly, he recovers but realizes that the life of an IRA agent is not for him. Charmed by the eccentric family, especially Arlene and the enchanting land, Gibbs realizes that he has a newly awakened talent for painting and drawing. The Grodens also learn that he has also been suffering from long-term depression and has drugs to treat it - a boon to Arlene. This unlikely combination of people brings us into an almost surrealistic world where there are few modern conveniences but it is an environment full of life and energy where the Grodens, quite literally, live off of the land. The tiny family is at an impasse when Charley succumbs to the power of an inexplicable depression that has him in tears much of the time. When Gibbs arrives he unknowingly opens a valve that allows the family to heal and in the process opens up his own potential as he explores his newfound artistic talent. At the same time, intelligent Bo takes interest in William's fancy briefcase and wallet and is scheming to get a credit card of her very own. She also desperately wants to go to public school. The tiny cast of characters focuses on little Bo as the story's anchor. Newcomer Valentina de Angelis is remarkably cool and comfortable, opposite the veteran adult players, in her first feature film. The youngster learned how to shoot a rifle, tie a squirrel and use a bow and arrow and holds the screen like a pro as she performs her imaginary twilight three-ring circus or goes on the hunt to gather meat for the family pot. Joan Allen plays a very different role than her norm and is superb in her earth mother character. Tanned and fit, the talented actress seems ageless and creates a character with a timeless quality who could survive anything, and thrive. There is a palpable feeling of comfort in Arlene and it is easy to see why William Gibbs would fall in love with her. Sam Elliott, also cast in a role counter to his usual gruff, tough guy, is given the chance to explore a character who is normally in total control but has lost touch with reality and does not know why. Though nearly silent for the film's first two reels, Elliott evokes sympathy for his suffering and you root for him to get better throughout the film. Jim True-Frost, as William, gets the chance to put the biggest arc on his character's development and change as he goes from an insecure young man who believes that he, when 6-years old, had discovered his mother's hanged body, to a freed man whose mind and spirit were unleash by his experience living with the Grodens. J.K. Simmons, as George, comes across, initially, as slow-witted but soon shows us that taciturnity is not necessarily stupidity and proves to be a reliable friend to the Grodens and like an uncle to Bo. When he leaves to get married and relocate away from his friends you can feel their loss. Helmer/producer Campbell Scott has spent years in trying to get Joan Ackermann's long-running play of the same name to the big screen. He brought on board the playwright to adapt her own work and assembled his small, talented cast and crew, finally, to bring us "Off the Map." Shot on location near Taos, New Mexico, the film's gorgeous locale is masterfully captured by Spanish lenser Juan Ruiz Anchia. Chris Shriver's production design, in its rugged simplicity of the Groden home, gives a feeling of another time before the invention of electricity or the telephone. Costume, too, by Amy Westcott, also the feel of a different era when the West was still a frontier. Gary DeMichele's score blends well with the look and feel of "Off the Map." The production of "Off the Map" opens up the theatricality of the play with the beautiful vastness of northern New Mexico. Scott does a sound job in marshalling his intrepid cast and crew to tell the story of a very different kind of American family.