Of Gods and Men, dir. Xavier Beauvois (Armada Films) & Winter’s Bone, dir. Debra Granik (Fortissimo Films)
Ringing Roger, July 2011
Two films recently made available on DVD seem at first glance to have nothing much in common. One is about the murder of nine monks in Algeria; the other is about the search by a teenage girl in backwoods America for her drug-dealing father. But let’s see…
Of Gods and Men is based on a true story. A small Cistercian community establishes itself in the Algerian village of Tibhirine, tending to the needs of a grateful Muslim population. Despite warnings from the Algerian army that the monks had better leave because of the growing threat of terrorism, they decide to stay. Sure enough, a violent Islamist group eventually captures them and leads them off to their deaths. A superficial objection might be that the film endorses fatalism and passivity, but the actual experience of watching the film reveals a deeper theme. It is essentially a study in fortitude guided by faith. It celebrates the courage of the monks, and it forces us to ask what values we ourselves might have that are stronger than death. In that sense, it is a religious film: a study in collective sainthood. At the same time, it faces head-on the dangers of fundamentalism, as represented by the Islamist terrorists. Yet it does so without being at all anti-Muslim: one is left in no doubt of the love felt by the locals for their Christian helpers.
At first sight, Winter’s Bone seems to complement another recent-to-DVD film, True Grit (reviewed here last month): a teenage girl fights for justice in a harsh environment. But on reflection, it seems to mirror just as much, if not more, Of Gods and Men in that it celebrates devotion. The protagonist, 17-year old Ree Dolly, single-handedly looks after a mother who is incapacitated by depression and at the same time manages to raise her young brother and sister, all in a run-down shack in the Ozark mountains that traverse southern Missouri. Her father, Jessop, is a producer of ‘crank’, or crystal meth. Having been caught, he has used the family home as bail, while awaiting trial; but he has now gone missing, so the house will be taken away from the occupants unless Ree can either find her father alive and persuade him to give himself up, or else locate his dead body to provide grim proof that he is not jumping bail. The film is about her search, and the hostility she faces in the ‘white trash’ neighbourhood – including that of some of her distant relations, who are keen to take revenge on Jessop, reputed to have been informing on fellow-dealers to the local police. The tale is a harrowing one: the poverty, prejudice and violence are represented with stark, unyielding exactness. Yet somehow Ree keeps going, determined to protect her mother and her siblings.
Both the Cistercians in Of Gods and Men and the young heroine of Winter’s Bone demonstrate a strong, unyielding commitment to their principles. The monks believe in Christian fellowship; she believes in domestic loyalty. Her faith seems secular; theirs is explicitly religious. But both films are about the triumph of spirit over circumstances. Taking this idea further, we may note that Winter’s Bone, being set in backwoods America, inevitably draws on the residual Protestant worldview that helped settle and shape those areas. In case we forget these Christian origins, they’re evoked in the country music that punctuates the film – not just as background but as part of the story. For instance, in the course of her quest Ree at one point drops in on an impromptu hootenanny gathering at which bleak songs of yearning for salvation are sung. Then, finally, we hear over the closing credits a great traditional American song which is both hymn and country standard: ‘Farther Along’. Credited to J. R. Baxter and W. B. Stevens, who put it into its final form in the earlier twentieth century, it asks a timeless question:
Sometimes I wonder why I must suffer,
Go in the rain, the cold, and the snow,
When there are many living in comfort,
Giving no heed to all I can do.
The answer of the song is given in the refrain:
Farther along we’ll know more about it
Farther along we’ll understand why;
Cheer up, my brother, live in the sunshine,
We’ll understand it all by and by.
Winter’s Bone may not be as explicitly religious as Of Gods and Men, but it explores just as seriously the source of the strength which helps people face the worst while still trusting that the best may yet be attained.