The winner of the Palme d'Or at the Cannes film festival this year was a Thai film about reincarnation, while Of Gods and Men, the true story of the 1996 massacre of French monks in Algeria by Islamists, took the runner-up Grand Prix award.
The Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is first Asian Palme d'Or win since 1997. "Lyrically beautful", says the Guardian; "dull and incomprehensible" says Le Figaro. What makes it unusual -- "weird", say many -- is the way that living and dead interact: the film was apparently inspired by a book by a Buddhist abbot recording accounts of people who remembered their past lives. The idea of beings -- living and dead, animal and human and vegetable -- coexisting in a single universal consciousness mirrors Apitchatpong's conception of cinema as the medium with the power to convey that simultaneity.
Cultural originality and cinematic dexterity may have swung the jury to giving Uncle Boonmee first prize, but I'm guessing that Xavier Beauvois's Des hommes et des Dieux ("Of Gods and Men"), a moving meditation on martyrdom in response to violence, will turn out to the better and more successful film. "It is the most intensely passionate film at Cannes so far this year, and the fact that the passion is religious makes it no less moving", says The Times of London.
Of Gods and Men charts the period leading up to the French monks' kidnapping and execution, focussing on the monks' inner struggles as each one decides whether to remain in an ever more precarious Algeria torn between Islamist insurgents and government forces.
In all, there were 19 priests, monks, sisters and a bishop -- Bishop Claverie of Oran -- who were assassinated by Muslim fundamentalists in Algeria between 1994 -1996. But the film focusses on the eight Trappist monks at the monastery of Tibhirine as they grapple with the choice of martyrdom at the hands of either the Islamists or the military (it has never been cleared up). It is, say critics, a highly contained and understated film, one that dares -- like that other recent film about Trappists, Into Great Silence -- to leave wordless and noiseless spaces in the plot.
"What interested me was the story of these men, who they were, and the rest, well, we don't really know," AP reports Beauvois as telling a news conference, adding that he personally favored the hypothesis of a blunder by the Algerian military.
The French Catholic daily La Croix tells the story of the patient, piece-by-piece investigation into the truth of what happened.
"The monks insisted on being extremely neutral, on not taking sides," said screenwriter Etienne Comar. "They called the terrorists 'the brothers from the mountain' and called the people from the army 'the brothers from the plain.' ... It seems totally coherent for the movie to adopt their point of view."
What the Cannes jury said (my translation):
"Of great aesthetic beauty, enhanced by a remarkable collective interpretation, with a rhythm resulting from the alternation of work and prayer, this film depicts the sacrifice made by the monks of Tibhirine (Algeria, 1996) who chose to puruse their work of peace despite the violence unleashed around them. The monks' deep humanity, their respect for Islam, and their generosity to their village neighbours all motivated our choice."