Spiritual touch has them flocking to the Light House
SMALL PRINT:THE PHRASE “cult movie” is too often overused (and misused). Any picture that features motorbikes and 1970s funk seems to qualify. But Xavier Beauvois’s Of Gods and Men, a quiet tale of doomed monks in 1990s Algeria, is fast becoming the real thing.
Far from attracting comic-book fans in tiny beards, the film is drawing in older viewers, many of them practising Christians, who have, to this point, attended the cinema rarely. These are the same sort of people – often the very same people – who made an arthouse hit of the 2005 documentary, Into Great Silence, a study of Monks in the French Alps.
It’s Monday afternoon in Dublin’s Light House cinema, normally a quiet period for exhibitors, but the foyer is thronged with punters waiting for the 3pm screening of Beauvois’s moving picture.
“It is definitely an older audience,” Maretta Dillon, co-manager of The Light House, explains. “It opened quite slowly at Christmas during the snow and built slowly. A lot of the audience are interested in the spiritual dimension. We have had a lot of the clerical community attending.” It seems as if the film is doing particularly well in the afternoon.
“Yes. We had 200 in on Sunday afternoon and 150 in on Saturday. That’s a lot for a film that’s been on since December. The afternoons are largely older people, but the evenings are more mixed.” Runner-up at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, Of Gods and Menhas received ecstatic reviews throughout the world, but it is not the sort of film you’d expect to become a breakout hit. Telling the true story of a group of Trappists who were eventually beheaded in 1997 – the facts remain unclear – the picture is uncompromising in its determination to tell its story slowly.
Sister Catherine and her friend, also a nun, have travelled from Waterford to catch the film. “We heard about it from one of our sisters,” she explains. “She said that if you follow a theology course, you’ll see it all in this film. We also heard about Into Great Silence, but we didn’t see it.” At the neighbouring table, Gemma and Triona King, twins from Co Meath, both of whom work in the civil service, were equally happy to share their enthusiasm.
“Five or six friends told me about it,” Gemma says. “There is a message in it.” Had they seen Into Great Silence? “We saw it on DVD. There is a message there for the secular world as well as the religious one. There is a search for silence in all of us.” More than a few punters explain that their friends texted or emailed them about the film. The phenomenon has, in other words, gone viral. We think of such electronically fired movements as happening solely among the young. Nobody in the audience on Monday afternoon seems, however, anything less than middle-aged.
It’s tempting – not least because a disproportionate number of nuns and priests are in attendance – to assume that Of Gods and Menis being used as a class of devotional tool. But Edward Hayden, a retired engineer from Dublin, seeing the film for a second time, explains that he is at least as interested in the film’s socio-political subtexts. Still, the pictures’s concern with a vanishing class of religious devotion is certainly a factor in its success.
“Our brother, who’s a Jesuit priest, told us about it and said it should win the best foreign film award,” Eithne Delaney, attending with her sister, says. “So we saw it was still on in The Irish Timesand beetled town.” Is she approaching it from a religious perspective? “Oh, no. I wouldn’t say that. We go to the IFI a lot and we just love French film.” Their brother will be disappointed. The film, to every sensible person’s surprise, failed to secure an Oscar nomination for best foreign language picture. For heaven’s sake!
– DONALD CLARKE