New Zealand Film Festival offshoot, the World Cinema Showcase, returns. TimeOut critic Peter Calder casts an eye over the programme and talks to the writer of one of the French highlights, Of Gods and Men
On the other side of the world only the most assiduous reader of international news would remember it, or even have noticed it at the time.
But the slaughter of seven French Trappist monks near their monastery at Tibhirine in Algeria in 1996 was massive news in France. In part, the interest derived from the country's profoundly ambivalent relationship with its former colony. But it was also one of France's early brushes with Islamist terrorism: the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), which had hijacked an Air France flight to Marseille on Christmas Eve, 1994, took the monks captive and was assumed to have killed them.
In 2007, a second-hand but plausible report suggested the possibility that the seven had been killed by the Algerian army during a botched airborne rescue - and grisly arguments about the state of their discovered remains have been advanced in support of that theory. But Etienne Comar, the writer of a new French film telling the monks' story, remains aloof from the debate.
"No one will ever know the truth," he says. "It will always remain a mystery and it remains a mystery in the film because it's not what's important about this story."
As the title, Of Gods and Men, suggests, this is no geopolitical thriller. Rather the film, directed by Xavier Beauvois, is a masterful, sober and austerely beautiful meditation on the nature of faith in time of crisis, which is more uplifting than blood-soaked (the monks' murder is never shown, just hinted at).
"Their kidnapping and killing was front page news," says Comar, "but what was not very well explained was about the monks, about their lives. Nobody had really looked at that."
The specific focus of the film is the process by which the monks decided that they would refuse army offers of evacuation as the GIA advanced. Thus it become a human and religious story, specifically avoiding any political dimension: the terrorists, whose characters are barely sketched, exist only to bring to bear a sense of encroaching menace.
"That was a very deliberate decision," says the writer. "The film is absolutely not setting out to be a historical study. It is more like a tragedy which explores the more universal themes of the story."
Comar's description of the end of the story as a "mystery" is telling: a journalist might say the facts are disputed or the story remains unresolved. But the word "mystery" gets closer to the ineffable quality of the story which the film perfectly captures. The final shot - whose nature won't be revealed here - provides a visual correlative for that sense of unknowing, which is finally close to transcendent.
It was that sense that drove, at least in part, Beauvois' approach. He spent a week in a monastery observing the routines as he contemplated the look and rhythm of the film and in a key scene, which has to be seen to be believed, he replaced a Jacques Brel song with a sequence from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake and the reactions of the cast, knowing they were enacting the monks' last night, were filmed, raw and unrehearsed. It is an unassuming moment of unexpected emotional impact, in a film full of them.
Of Gods and Men was France's official entry for Best Foreign Language Film in last Academy Awards, though puzzlingly didn't even make the nominees' short list. But it was a spectacular box office and critical success in France - the biggest non-mainstream local film in a quarter of a century. Most commentators are at a loss to explain why. So is Comar.
"I think perhaps the religious aspects resonate," he says, "because there is something there about the confrontation between Christian and Muslim which is a subject that has provoked a wide debate in France.
"And people are moved about the story. It's very simple. There are a lot of debates about how Muslim and Christian can live together. The values these monks live by - like fraternity and self-sacrifice - it's like we need that.
"One doctor wrote a letter about the film and said we have a need for this kind of film, like a vitamin deficiency. So I think it's in the air, you know."
What: World Cinema Showcase
Where and when: SkyCity Theatre Auckland; April 1-18; Paramount, Wellington, April 14-30
Info: www.worldcinemashowcase.co.nz Of Gods and Men is a meditation on the nature of faith.