‘Of Gods and Men' unravels a powerful, true tale of Monks courageously fighting evil
Anyone curious about the monastic life need seek no further than the French drama, Of Gods and Men. A great deal of screen time is devoted to the daily routines and rituals of a small household of French Christian monks embedded within a largely Islamic mountain community in North Africa. But while director Xavier Beauvois lingers over their cloistered life of prayer, work and study behind the monastery walls, the film gradually expands into a larger story of courage, commitment, and community as the peaceful brothers are drawn into a brutal war between a corrupt government and its terrorist opponents.
Inspired by the true story of a group of French Cistercian monks caught up in the Algerian Civil War in the mid-1990s, Beauvois' film lures us in at the start with its unhurried depiction of daily life in the small hilltop monastery. The brothers rise before dawn to gather in the chapel and chant their morning prayers, then devote an hour to individual study. By day, they work their small plot of land, tend their garden, and operate a dispensary, where elderly, rumpled Brother Luc (the wonderful Michael Lonsdale), a doctor, sees to the medical needs of the local people. At night, after the communal meal presided over by their leader, Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson), they retire again to their individual cells for reading and more prayers.
Still, despite these inward-turning habits and their Christian faith, the monks are completely integrated into the life of the village. They dispense not only pills and medical treatment, but shoes and even romantic advice among the local people. They keep bees and sell honey at the local market, meet regularly with the Muslim village elders for tea, and participate in all the village ceremonies, including Islamic ones. Public church services are never held at the monastery, nor do the brothers ever try to convert the locals; indeed, Brother Christian studies the Koran to learn how to better serve their neighbors.
But the monks' quiet lives of order and contemplation are on a collision course with reality. Islamic extremists are running amok in the mountains; a teenage girl is reported murdered for not wearing a veil. The government responds with equally savage reprisals against anyone suspected of having any dealings with the "terrorists," and the villagers and the monks find themselves caught in the literal crossfire. In time, both a band of armed terrorists and an Army convoy come knocking at the monastery gate, making demands. The local Wali (governor) suggests the monks return to France for their own safety.
Herein lies the crux of their dilemma. If they stay on, they risk "collective suicide," but if they leave, they might be "abandoning (their) flock to the wolves." The question of how to proceed occupies much of the film's middle act, as each man grapples with his own conscience, courage, faith, and purpose. None enters into his decision lightly, and while the scrupulous attention Beauvois pays to every minute facet of their evolving debate can sound a bit repetitive at times, the small revelations each faces about the nature of his personal life and their collective life within the larger community add deep resonance to the story.
Beauvois' approach to this material is largely philosophical. He includes an Islamic prayer stating that God does not distinguish between his Messengers on Earth, and cites the Pascal quote, "Men never do evil so cheerfully and so completely as when they do so from religious conviction." The monks place themselves in opposition to evil wherever they find it; they neither take sides in the mounting civil strife, nor condemn Islam or its practitioners for the evils perpetrated by the few. (Indeed, their ongoing tolerance for other faiths becomes a more compelling act of heroism than their physical courage.)
When pressed, however, Beauvois can pack a lot of tension into a scene, whether the monks are driving through an armed checkpoint, or coping with terrorists in the middle of the night. When the monks stand up, singing, in their chapel, instinctively clasping hands as an armed helicopter hovers just outside, it's but one small moment of exquisite power in a film that gains its strength from the accumulation of small, vivid moments.
OF GODS AND MEN ★★★
With Lambert Wilson and Michael Lonsdale.
Written and directed by Xavier Beauvois. A Sony Pictures Classics release. Rated PG-23. 122 minutes.
In French with English subtitles.
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