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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