Of Gods and Men / Waiting for “Superman”
The World Cinema Showcase
These reviews first appeared in the Sunday Star Times, 27 March 2011
Of Gods and Men
Amidst high praise and several awards in Europe and its native France, Of Gods and Men is a rumination on faith and humanity that takes a bigger gamble than your average kidnapping drama. More akin to a period of meditative practice than your typical, racy thriller, the film trades threats, shouting and jagged camerawork for calm, earnest discussion and languid tracking shots, taking us deep into the psyche of its characters.
Loosely based on the true story of a group of Christian monks living peaceably in a monastery in Algeria in the 1990s, they tend to the local Muslim villagers’ medical, if not spiritual, needs – resident doctor Luc (Michael Lonsdale) even manages to dish out the odd pair of shoes. Life revolves around study, prayer, sonorous chanting and a spot of beekeeping. This tranquil existence is threatened one day when Islamic terrorists burst in making demands, which Brother Christian, in charge of the monastery, denies them with a great deal of nerve. Declining the army’s protection, life becomes a waiting game in case the terrorists return, as each of the monks faces his own challenge of whether to stay or leave.
A fine French cast is led by Lonsdale (Munich, Ronin and much more in a career spanning five decades) and Lambert Wilson (sadly probably best known to English-speaking audiences as the Merovingian in the Matrix films). The casting is superb, and the naturalistic acting faultless. If anything, audiences may struggle with the pace of the film, though the slow, measured tone is fitting to life in a monastery, and allows deep philosophical issues to be intoned.
At its essence, this is a film about love – evidently spiritual, and in one discussion, romantic. But most of all it is about love for fellow man, exemplified by Brother Christian’s proficiency with the Koran, and his gracious explanation of Christmas Eve to the terrorists who inadvertently picked that particular day to intrude. It is also about the freedom found in faith, as Brother Luc declares “I’m not scared of terrorists…[or] the army. I’m not scared of death. I’m a free man”.
Waiting for “Superman”
Minutes into this documentary about the failings of education in the United States, ideological educator Geoffrey Canada describes how, when he first entered teaching, he figured he’d be able to overhaul the whole country’s school system within two or three years – if he was on his “A-game”. The audience laughs, since we all have a sense of the uphill struggle this most important of issues faces every day.
Despite receiving a “non-achieved” on that initial goal, Canada and others went about setting up charter schools in the poorest neighbourhoods of states including New York, Washington and Los Angeles, where low income but otherwise bright and motivated children go into a lottery for a highly sought after place at the school. If they win, lives are changed. If not, unemployment and prison surely beckons.
Director Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) follows five families in their quest to get the best for their child. Despite effective use of clever animation and restrained humour to make sense of the statistics, the arguments seem slightly disorganised, apportioning blame variously to bad teachers, school districts and quoting the ex-president’s assurance that “Childrens do learn”.
However, the problems are clear, even if the solution seems intangible. If the very idea of gambling with a child’s future makes you cringe, the realities in this film will make you outraged.