"Beyond religion, the film is about men"
by Fabien Lemercier
20/05/2010 - After the enthusiastic press reception for Of Gods and Men [trailer, film focus], presented in competition at the 63rd Cannes Film Festival, French director Xavier Beauvois answered journalists’ questions at a press conference. Here are some choice extracts.
What sparked your interest in this historical drama which, on the surface of it, is quite different from your previous films?
Xavier Beauvois: It began with a telephone call from Etienne Comar who wanted an opinion on a screenplay he’d just received. I read a first version which I thought was very beautiful, beyond the theme of religion. He then admitted to me that he’d written it. We reworked the screenplay to adjust it to my style.
I immersed myself in the life of these brothers [monks] and I was immediately captivated, surprised and inhabited by them. It’s rare, nowadays, in a selfish society, to see people taking an interest in others, in other people’s religion, intelligent, passionate people, who are in the state of "being" whereas we’re in the state of "doing", doing things. And it’s good timing because in France, they’re trying to turn us against each other by raising false problems like the burka, to avoid talking about real issues. It did me good to meet people who are curious about the beauty of others, about their religion.
Of course, I went on a monastic retreat and there, it became clear what was necessary. Firstly, we had to create a mise-en-scene. I realised straightaway that doing tracking shots indoors was out of the question: they are static shots. I adopted moral principles and I stuck to them throughout the film.
People often say it’s better to avoid the subject of religion in films. Were you aware you were taking a risk?
I didn’t have that impression. We protected ourselves, we stayed together. But it goes beyond religion: the film is about men. As far as religion is concerned, half my brain believes in nothing and the other half in everything, so I try to live with it.
To what extent did you collaborate with the Church and the monks’ families when preparing the film?
I don’t collaborate with the Church. The families were initially rather against the idea and quite anxious, but with the exception of a few, we sorted things out. I hope they’ll be happy with the film.
There’s a lot of controversy surrounding the circumstances of the monks’ death. Why did you stay outside of this by not filming their death?
It’s not a news report, it’s a drama. What interested me was the story of these men, who they were. We don’t really know what we’re getting into, it’s complicated, even though I’m personally inclined to believe the military blunder hypothesis. I’d had some casts of severed heads prepared, but during the shoot I decided it was ridiculous, and I thought about the families. Instead, I preferred to make the most of the incredibly lucky weather conditions and the snow, a miracle which came at an ideal point in the film shoot.
Moreover, I read somewhere that I shot the film in Morocco for security reasons; but this isn’t true. I’ve long adored that country and I’d long dreamed of shooting a film there. It’s a billion times easier than filming in the streets of Paris.