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DVD Reviews: Farewell (2009) and Of Gods and Men (2010)

2 French language films, 2 English language reviews:

Farewell is an entertaining but unremarkable French spy thriller based on extraordinary real events – 7/10 

Dir. Christian Carion

It’s the early 1980s and the struggle for No.1 Superpower status between the USA and the USSR is still very much alive. In the heart of the KGB, however, Sergei Grigoriev (Emir Kusturica) (loosely based on Vladimir Vetrov) has decided that enough is enough; the communist experiment was admirable but ultimately a failure and the Cold War has to end. Moreover, given that he is a high-ranking KGB agent he is perfectly placed to engineer that change – even if he risks everything doing it. In order to achieve his goal, the enigmatic and reckless Russian decides to hand over secrets to the French and the unwitting engineer, Pierre Froment (Guilleme Canet), becomes his accomplice and sole confident.

The plot is intriguing and the historical backdrop acts as the perfect setting for an espionage thriller. This backdrop is fully capitalised upon by director Christian Carion, who presents a coherent piece which captures the period well. Canet and Kusturica play the unlikely lead pairing brilliantly, particularly Kusturica who portrays the idealistic, Francophile Russian with some verve. The final half-hour pulls this slow burner tight, providing a suspenseful and emotionally engaging finale. This emotional engagement is, however, both the film’s downfall and achievement. Prior to this finale, Farewell spends a lot of time on Froment and Grigoriev’s character development and relationship. This allows us to sympathise with them on a personal level, but it also means the film plods along in parts. In addition, the scenes involving US President Ronald Reagan (Fred Ward) and French President Francois Mitterand (Philippe Magnan) feel out-of-place and awkward.

There are many nice directorial touches in this film and the contrast between East and West is subtly but effectively shown. Farewell makes a point of being underplayed and is relatively low on thrills. Some might say it requires a little patience, but there’s much to admire and it’s well worth the watch. Also, lovely soundtrack by Clint Mansell.

Of Gods and Men

Sad, profound and beautiful in equal measure, this is not a film that you will easily forget – 8/10

Dir. Xavier Beauvois

Of Gods and Men portrays the true story of 9 Trappists monks living in the monastery of Tibhirine, Algeria, before 7 of them are taken and killed by terrorists during the Algerian Civil War in 1996. Prior to being held hostage, the monks lived in harmony with their Muslim neighbours and much of the film shows their metronomic routine of life and worship. The monks make a considerable contribution to the community, particularly in their provision of medicine. They therefore struggle to comprehend the idea of leaving Tibhirine, despite the obvious danger, and the film predominantly focuses on the monks’ decision to stay and risk their lives.

Of Gods and Men was highly acclaimed and won several awards including the 2010 Cannes ‘Grand Prix,’ and for the most part these accolades are deserved. It is – in line with the subject matter – sombre without being mawkish and considers the issue of martyrdom without having delusions of grandeur. Clearly religion is central to the narrative but the film does not try to convert the viewer. Of Gods and Men is beautifully shot; it is contemplative and restrained throughout and this tone can be sharply contrasted with the way in which the monks were treated by their captors. Christian (Lambert Wilson) and Luc (Michael Lonsdale) lead their fellow monks in discussing what is the right thing to do. However, we learn most by studying their wonderfully expressive faces and it is clear that the monks never intend to leave their post. Although it is hard not to feel that the monks’ courage, loyalty or piety lead to a tremendous waste of life, Of Gods and Men is a brilliant study of their motivations and psyche.

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