“Of Gods and Men” is a thrilling adventure of the spirit.
Austere yet provocative, this is not only a film about faith, it also has faith that the power generated by complex moral decisions can be as unstoppable as any runaway locomotive.
Directed by Xavier Beauvois and based on the true story of a profound life-and-death crisis faced by nine French monks in a monastery in Algeria’s Atlas Mountains in the mid-1990s, “Of Gods and Men” has been nothing less than a sensation in its native France. It won best film honors at this year’s Cesars, the French Academy Awards.
Beauvois, whose last film was the little-seen but excellent crime drama “Le Petit Lieutenant,” has accomplished all this not by pandering to the audience or sensationalizing Etienne Comar’s thoughtful script. Rather, he’s taken the opposite approach and trusted rigor and restraint to be his most effective tools.
Though it works up considerable dramatic heft, “Of Gods and Men” is careful to start quietly, choosing to emphasize, in Caroline Champetier’s luminous cinematography, the tranquil setting of the Cistercian monastery in the remote Algerian community of Tibhirine.
It slowly immerses viewers in the monks’ daily lives as they move through sacred prayer rituals and secular tasks including gardening, cleaning, building and making honey.
The film also emphasizes how well the monks fit into the town’s Muslim community. They are invited to family celebrations, enjoy easy relations with the local religious leaders and, in the form of brother Luc (Michael Lonsdale), provide minimal but essential medical care.
This scene setting is impeccably done, and along with it comes the sense that, humble and unassuming though it may be, these monks and villagers are living in a paradise on earth. As is the case with all paradises, however, it is inevitable that there will be a shattering fall.
The first intimations of this are reports that a girl in a nearby town was stabbed on a bus for not wearing the hijab, or traditional Muslim head covering. The local imam is as horrified as the monks at these stirrings of Islamic fundamentalism, declaring “the world’s gone mad.”
Then things come closer to home, and we watch as a gang of terrorists led by the implacable Ali Fayattia (Farid Larbi) slaughter a group of Croatian construction workers whose only crime is that they are not Muslims.
A visit to the monastery by Ali and his men underlines that despite all that has gone before, the life-or-death threat to the Christian monks could not be more real.
“Of Gods and Men” compellingly examines the ways the monks, simultaneously men and men of God, deal with this stark change in their reality. Though their dilemma can be framed in the simplest terms – should they stay or should they go – the factors they have to consider to make the decision are extraordinarily complex.
Is leaving prudence or cowardice? Is staying protecting the flock or committing collective suicide? There are no easy answers to questions like these, and the film has the grace not to pretend otherwise.