A work of astounding sensitivity and precision, Of Men and War argues for emotional honesty as a moral and psychic imperative. The second part of his “Genealogy of Wrath” trilogy (the first, War Wearied, followed three widows in the aftermath of the war in Bosnia), Laurent Bécue-Renard’s film avoids the politics of modern warfare, maintaining a rigorous focus on past traumas and present struggles of its subjects, a group of PTSD-inflicted veterans residing at a health-care facility in California’s Napa Valley.
Early in the film, a veteran, fixed in a tight close-up, recalls his first experience killing another man: “I don’t know what he looked like before he got shot. I know what he looked like after.” Bécue-Renard’s camera pans away from the soldiers face to reveal a room full of soldiers gripped by similar images they can’t escape, regrets they can’t shake, or decisions they can’t take back. This camera movement simply, devastatingly defines the format of treatment at work here—group therapy—and its ultimate purpose: As one doctor puts it, “to bear witness to you sharing yourself.”
One wonders if half of the vets in these therapy sessions wear sunglasses because of the presence of a camera or, more simply and devastatingly, because they’re afraid to have their peers look them in the eyes. Both seem plausible as we observe these men in varying states of anguish, and with varying ambitions for recovery. Bécue-Renard implicitly underlines the bravery necessary for this treatment to take root. Most of the shot coverage in the many group-therapy sessions is of isolated faces abutted by bleached cement walls; a moderating therapist is mostly invisible, a pleading but authoritative voice from behind the camera, not unlike a director.
Sometimes the patients interact with one another on camera, in a dynamic and voluble range of tones. Ultimately, the vets are alone to overcome their individual traumas. The film’s compositional conceit insists that other bodies and voices are crucial to their hopes for recovery, but reminds us of the walls that must come down first. These layers of emotional distance extend to the viewers; we develop an investment in the health of these subjects, but remain aware that we’re unable to reach out to them.
Slowly, though, Of Men and War begins to mimic a path to recovery, fanning out into broader social spheres. The faces of therapists are revealed, and then the doc hesitantly introduces familial and community relationships: wives and girlfriends appear; then children; then friends, schools, and sports teams. All of these scenes have an exquisite delicacy: one veteran’s leg shakes uncontrollably as he sits through an undergraduate lecture; another scolds his child too harshly, and just barely seems to realize that his anger is misdirected.
Bécue-Renard, shooting over the course of six years, observes these moments with a clinical eye, rarely altering his gaze and insisting that patience and self-regard are essential to healing. The flow of events mirrors the tenuous nature of recovery, and the impossibility of a cure: The wedding of one veteran is followed by a scene where another soldier recalls his repeated attempts to commit suicide.
As each of them struggle with impermanence, they’re doomed to be scarred by heinous and unforgettable sounds and images. The film’s final shot, of a father hoisting his child onto his shoulders and walking away from the camera, points out that even a spontaneous moment of tenderness can be the result of anguished confessions and persistent efforts at self-improvement. Simply and profoundly humanistic, Of Men and War is a massive film wrought from tiny gestures.
True/False ran from March 5—8.