In Of Gods and Men, seven French monks face death as civil war sweeps through an Algerian mountain village. Xavier Beauvois directs.
Cesar Awards’ Best Film
Xavier Beauvois directs the true life drama which won Best Film at the Cesar Awards (France’s Oscars) and the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes 2010.
The Trappist monks offer compassionate service in the rural Algerian highlands. They raise crops and sell honey. Elderly Brother Luc (Cesar winner Michael Lonsdale) gives medical care to the poor. When a child’s shoes are worn, he provides a new pair.
Extremists slit the throats of Croatian highway workers one day. Villagers run to tell the brothers. Tensions rise between Islamist insurgents and a corrupt government. France’s colonization of Algeria, years after the country regained independence, still rankles. Foreigners are not trusted.
In this can’t-look-away film, Beauvois focuses on the inner and outer lives of the monks, who were kidnapped during the 1996 civil war and later executed. No group admitted to the slayings.
Love and devotion
Cinematographer Caroline Champetier (also a Cesar winner) captures the monks’ emotion, movement and conversation close up in the beautiful, meditative mountains. The film was made in Morocco.
As violence spreads, the government orders the monks to leave the country. The men debate their fate. They have long accepted their Islamic brothers and sisters.
The monks are radicals too, believing that reconciliation is possible. Daily service, prayer and devotion fill their days. The community’s prior Christian (Lambert Wilson) reads both the Koran and the Bible.
Ego is almost completely subdued among the brothers. Chatter doesn’t fill their dinner hour. Instead, they listen to scripture readings as they eat in silence.
Wilson told The New York Times that the actors went on retreat in the French Alps to prepare for their roles. “We spent a few days observing the monks, eating in silence with the other people who were going on the retreat, and then we started singing. And that was really the best preparation.”
“We learned Gregorian chanting,” Wilson said. “We learned liturgical singing as a group. This is really what got this group of French actors together.”
Known for his performances in the Matrix trilogy, Wilson usually plays romantic and lighthearted characters.
After a terse showdown with Christian on Christmas evening, a terrorist leader designates the abbey as protected. To Beauvois’ credit he transcends stereotypes.
Caring for an enemy
When a wounded jihadist is brought in, Luc treats him as he would anyone else. The act of charity must be kept secret or the group risks government retaliation.
Each monk must decide whether to stay or leave. Christophe (Olivier Rabourdin) struggles with fear and anger more than the rest.
Stay or go?
The men don’t want to be martyrs, they decide. But where else will they go when they are so needed here? “It is mad to stay, like it is mad to become a monk,” says Christian.
In one of the best scenes, the group stands during morning prayer and sings loudly as a military helicopter hovers overhead, filling the monastery with a terrifying racket.
Towards the end, Luc breaks out two bottles of wine for dinner. Wordlessly, he plays a tape of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. The monks smile, tears glistening. If they must sacrifice their lives, so be it.
Of Gods and Men is worth seeing twice for its nuance. It is the best movie exploration yet of silent devotion in a complex world.
Beauvois, who co-wrote the script, captures simple sanctity and dramatic tension. Similar films include Silent Light, Into Great Silence and Hadewijch.
The film is loosely based on The Monks of Tibhirine by John Kiser. (5 out of 5 stars)
If you like Of Gods and Men, you might enjoy: Letters to Father Jacob.
Of Gods and Men 2010 / PG-13 / 2 hours
Cast: Lambert Wilson, Michael Lonsdale, Olivier Rabourdin, Philippe Laudenbach, Jacques Herlin, Loic Pichon, Jean-Marie Laudenbach
Director: Xavier Beauvois
Genre: Drama, Historical Drama, Foreign Film, True Stories, Movie Based on the Book
Languages: French and Arabic with English subtitles