Xavier Beauvois tells tale at a monastic pace

Filmmaker's 'Gods' screened in Competition at Cannes

CANNES -- In making a film so austere, rigorous, even at times excruciatingly slow, were you afraid of boring the audience?

This is the kind of question that could and does come up at many of the news conferences here in Cannes with directors of films in one or another competitive section of the festival.

A version of that query reared its head again Tuesday in the presser for "Of Gods & Men," an indeed austere, rigorous, yet subtly enriching movie about Christian monks who lived among and nurtured Moslems in the Atlas Mountains of Algeria until they became victims of religious and political infighting in the region.

The film's Gallic director Xavier Beauvois is clearly proud of the pacing of his movie, which, he said, was in keeping with the pace and the rhythms of the monastic life. The film is based on a true story; the monks were eventually taken hostage by Islamic fundamentalists in 1996 and were killed in mysterious circumstances.

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"When, say, I look at a Paul Greengrass film, I can only stand that for 25 seconds. Then I have an epileptic fit."

"Speed, speed, speed ... enough. I think people are intelligent and can get it. I wouldn't change the rhythm of the picture at all -- no jump cuts, no fast clips."

In fact, so closely did the French auteur want to conjure the life and convey the spirituality of these monks that he took himself off for a monastic-like retreat himself in order to get closer to "the beauty of their faith." But, he added wryly, "O.K., I broke down at one point and put on a DVD with Russell Crowe."

The actors too -- led by Lambert Wilson and Michel Lonsdale -- also subjected themselves to two retreats to prepare for their roles. Et voila: "We sang the liturgical chants, we even became united in this apsiration toward something higher; we felt together as brothers. We even had a monastic consultant."

As Wilson went on to say, what was done in the film mirrors what is done in such a monastery. "Monks live at this rhythm. It's exhausting, and they work, too." Wilson also plays another religious role, a 16th century Hugeunot, in a second French film in competition, Bertrand Tavernier's "La Princesse de Montpensier."

Although much has been written about how the monks interacted with the villagers and how they came to be abducted and killed, the helmer choose to deal with the ending in a less direct way.

"I had decapitated bodies, models made, but then I knew that was ridiculous. Then unexpectedly, it snowed." That, in effect, gave the filmmaker an opportunity to shoot the final scene using nature as a backdrop, the whiteness almost as a metaphor.

"It happened just at the right moment. It was a state of grace."