“The Class” + “Of Gods And Men”

As it is in so many areas of our lives, deciding what film to watch is frequently a choice between watching something we think we ought to see, and something we actually want to. So despite the fact that Laurent Cantet’s The Class won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2008, I’ve been studiously avoiding having to watch it for months. Who honestly wants to spend an evening watching the travails of a diligent inner city school teacher from Paris trying to come to grips with the challenges presented by a gang of teenage 21st century multicultural miscreants? But eventually my sense of duty prevailed. Which is just as well, because it’s stunning.

Initially you sit there watching what is obviously a fly-on-the-wall documentary. But after a while, you begin to realize that all of these scenes must in fact have been constructed. But how it was made is soon rendered irrelevant, as you quickly become subsumed by the riveting story as it unfolds in all its brilliantly, nuanced complexity.

Like the Iranian pair The Apple and Close-Up, so entwined do the real world people and their story become with the fictional world woven by the filmmaker, that trying to untangle them becomes impossible. And you’re left to marvel both at the incredibly involving story told, and the extraordinary means used to tell it. And when you venture behind the curtain afterwards and watch the Making Of film, rather then take anything away from the film’s wonders, it simply explains how the whole thing came into being.

Two years later at the 2010 Cannes festival, Xavier Beauvois’ Of Gods And Men won the Ecumenical Jury award. A smaller prize for a quieter film, and again the synopsis did not bode well. This time we’re dealing with the measured stoicism of French monks stationed in Algeria, as timeless devotions and communal obligations come into conflict with random violence and blind chance.

But once again, what could so easily have been hopelessly dull and oh so worthy results instead in a beautifully measured and quietly moving story, as the men there are torn between the insulation that their spirituality affords them, and the very real ties that they have formed over the years with all the villagers who have come to look up to them, and who hope that somehow, these monks will provide them with a buffer between them and the violence that inexorably approaches.

Don’t be put off by their summaries, enjoy that rare treat; a pair of grown-up films addressed to adults that explore profound questions in all their murky ambiguity.

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