Thursday, 13 January 2011
Priez pour paix
I make no apologies for juxtaposing the peaceful song-title - bearing in mind Poulenc's inward setting of Charles d'Orleans's invocation under threat of war - and the violence implicit in Caravaggio's painting. Both the juxtaposition and the image play key parts in Xavier Beauvois's near-flawless film Of Gods and Men (Des hommes et des dieux): Luc (the infallibly sympathetic Michael Lonsdale) leans against the wounded body in a poster of the picture on the wall of his Algerian monastery and we begin to understand what 'love of Christ' might actually mean.
In fact all the best aspects of faith are to be found in the exquisitely chosen dialogues and quotations of the film's awe-inspiring script, with the Koran playing almost as large a role as the Bible. I'm hoping to obtain a copy of the text as it's a collection of wisdom in itself. In the meantime, read Dom Christan de Cherge's testament, written in Algiers on 1 December 1993, produced at his monastery of Our Lady of Atlas in Tibhirine on New Year's Day 1994 and opened on Pentecost Sunday 1996 shortly after the murders of Christian and his fellow Trappists (is it possible to talk about this film without foreknowledge of its end? I don't think so, though clearly an audience which didn't know the outcome would find it even more suspenseful). This is the voice not of a missionary - the director had said he would have found it hard to make a film about that - but of someone who dearly loved Algeria and his Muslim brothers.
Of Gods and Men works simply on so many levels: as a meditation on sound and silence - the popcorn crunching next to me soon stopped, and the Curzon Mayfair was still for the rest of the screening - in which music plays a minimal but essential role, Tchaikovsky as much as religious chant, and we understand what's not verbalised (as when, for instance, Lambert Wilson's Christian touches the trunk of a huge, ancient tree); as an unsentimental embodiment of what it might really mean to live and work in a community which may worship differently; and above all, ultimately, as a palpitation-inducing speculation on whether fear or faith will have the last word (the final procession which melts into the snow leaves the question open).
Unusually, I don't want to say much more, or to sully the film with any clips: just go see for yourselves. If only it could be screened in Iraq and Egypt in their current times of trouble, too: not, of course, as anything as crass as a Christian tract, but just for its simple reflections on the 'all men are/should be brothers' line. It's enough, as Golaud says in Pelleas et Melisande, to make stones weep. But not in a bad way.
Anyway here's Poulenc's 'Priez pour paix', the first of four songs delivered here by Charles Panzera with his wife at the piano (I wanted the Ann Murray recording, but it's not on YouTube).
And how could I not reproduce the most moving final scene in all opera, the nuns to the guillotine in Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmelites? This is perhaps director Robert Carsen's finest achievement, seen in the Scala production conducted (magnificently) by Riccardo Muti and with Dagmar Schellenberger giving a stunning performance as Blanche. When I encountered Carsen at a BBC Music Mag awards gathering, I asked him what working on it had signified. He replied with tears in his eyes that his mother had just died and it meant the world to her. A pity we don't get the brutal Prokofiev-style march before the Salve Regina here, the equivalent to the simultaneous noise of hovering helicopter and chant in one of the film's most powerful sequences.
The Carmelites, of course, have high-profile martyrdom thrust upon them; one of the points in Of Gods and Men is that the brotherhood wants to live as long as it can simply to do good to its flock as - in the words of one village lady - the branch on which they sit, and does not seek death. But the way in which the men individually come to terms with what it means to stay or to leave is another remarkable aspect of this cinematic masterpiece.