Film

CinemaDope: Making a Killing

Violence at the box office

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Thursday, May 12, 2011
Marie-Julie Maille/Why Not Productions, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Lambert Wilson as Christian and Jean-Marie Frin as Paul in Of Gods and Men

When the news of bin Laden broke last week, it was a strange sort of shock. Almost a decade after our country started a global manhunt, it had come to an abrupt and rather unexpected end—we had been searching for so long that it had become, perversely, nearly normal to not know where this man was hiding. Then we knew, and then he was gone.

In the aftermath, there was a peculiar push and pull, even among friends. Some celebrated the death of the man responsible for so much death himself. Others decried the killing, suggesting that the lack of a trial only served to bring us to a baser place. Some did both. Much of the action—like so much today—took place on Twitter and Facebook, where a slight misquote of Martin Luther King, Jr. led to all manner of high-horsing on all sides, which itself became a news story. (It's also a bit jarring to realize that Facebook was only opened to the public in September of 2006, a full five years after the hunt began in what really was another time.)

I mention all this because of our nation's never-ending dance with violence. We make folk heroes of people like Bonnie and Clyde, and a cursory glance at the prime time schedule reveals a seeming obsession with serial killers, sexual predators, and the people who profile them. It's built into our national DNA—we were born of revolution, after all—but we're also a people capable of incredible charity and warmth. It's a powerful and sometimes vexing mix. This week, a trio of films explore the varying effects of violence on our lives.

Of Gods and Men, now playing at Amherst Cinema, is almost unbelievably timely. Inspired by a true story, it is the tale of a band of Trappist monks whose monastery, built in the hills outside Algiers, is surrounded by an almost exclusively Muslim population. But the monks have not secluded themselves from their neighbors; instead, they study the Koran and learn Muslim traditions, and provide charitable assistance to the locals.

But when civil war comes to Algeria, the monastery is placed in a strange position—refusing to take sides, the monks refuse to allow the military to protect them, but also deny aid to the insurgents. "And if they come here, we lie down and die?" asks one. "It's a risk, yes," says their leader. It's a gamble that gets riskier still when the monks are taken hostage by extremist revolutionaries. A history not well known on these shores, it offers a profound meditation on acceptance.

A glitzier life is on display in Mesrine: Killer Instinct, a French biopic screening as part of Amherst's Films That Slipped Through The Cracks series. Showing Monday, May 9 at 7 p.m., it is the first half of a two-part biography of Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassel), a veteran of the Algerian War who returns to France and strikes out on a life of crime in 1960s Paris. Under the tutelage of Guido (G?rard Depardieu), Mesrine learns the ropes so well that he eventually becomes the country's most-wanted criminal. Cutting a romantic (if bloody) swath through French criminal history, the man's full tale will be told when Mesrine: Public Enemy #1 screens on May 23.

Falling somewhere between those films is Poetry, South Korean director Lee Chang-dong's film about an aging woman whose grandson introduces an awful violence into her orbit. Struggling to make sense of a boy she seems unable to know and dealing with a diagnosis of Alzheimer's, Mija turns to composing poetry as a way of filtering her life into manageable layers. Heartbreaking in its matter-of-factness, Poetry reminds us that there is no one way to deal with sadness.

*

Also this week: Amherst Cinema and Pleasant Street Theater have pulled a flip-flop in order to give local film hounds a chance to see recent releases without the hassle of crossing the Connecticut River. After opening in Amherst, Cary Joji Fukunaga's version of the classic Jane Eyre has arrived in Northampton. Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland) takes the lead in the classic Bronte story of love and the personal demons that sometimes stand in its way.

In return, Amherst Cinema has Bill Cunningham New York, the charming documentary about the even more charming newspaperman who has made the streets of New York his playground. The night it opened in Northampton people stopped me in the street to sing its praises—it is that warm and good, just like the man it chronicles.

Jack Brown can be reached at cinemadope@gmail.com.

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