In 1996, amid the drawn-out civil war that continued to plague Algeria, a small group of Trappist monks found themselves caught between the opposing factions. In March of that year, seven of their members were kidnapped and, two months later, assassinated.
Even now, the murderers remain unidentified, with no clear light shed on the exact circumstances of the monks’ deaths. That tragedy is factual, but Of Gods and Men is not.
Although loosely based on these dark events, Xavier Beauvois’s film is concerned less with answers than with questions. Who were these holy men? What and how did they worship? And why, despite repeated warnings to evacuate and a clear-eyed awareness of their immediate peril, did they choose to stay?
These questions permeate every frame of the movie, which begins and ends as a testament not to God but to brotherhood, and as a portrait not of war’s violence but of love’s endurance. Yet be prepared to exercise the same patience and forbearing as the Trappists, because the pacing here is all Grecian urn – so much “silence and slow time.”
Early on, Beauvois sets a pattern that, repeated throughout, is designed to capture the daily monastic rituals – the mute praying, the choral singing, the quiet tilling of their garden. The contrast, then, is obvious and persistent: Inside, the ancient traditions are fixed and transparent; outside, the modern strife is volatile and confusing.
That’s not to say the monks are unworldly. Quite the opposite. They are neither reclusive nor evangelical. Instead, as led by the head abbot, Christian (Lambert Wilson), the order has deep roots in the mountain village and plays an active role in the Islamic community.
Indeed, their secular practices – running a medical clinic, selling their honey in the local markets, attending family celebrations punctuated by the reading of the Koran – are just as engrained as their spiritual rites. Clearly, this is their home, a “house of peace” where Muslim villagers and French Christians share a long history and a mutual regard.
Yet war is encroaching on that house. The fundamentalist rebels are targeting Algerians and foreigners alike – killing teenage girls for not wearing the veil and Croatian construction workers for not quitting the country. On Christmas Eve, they invade the monastery in search of medical supplies, but Christian, unblinking behind his wire-rimmed glasses, faces them down, seeming to earn their respect.
Later, the aged Brother Luc (Michael Lonsdale) treats one of the wounded rebels, thereby arousing the suspicions of the government soldiers, who issue a warning about being “overindulgent toward the terrorists.” Both sides are heavily armed, both are given to brutality, and these eight monks are caught squarely in the middle.
The rest is an evolving examination of their quandary, from the internal debate encouraged by their tradition to a final vote on whether to leave. There are no histrionics but, at times, when his camera tracks Christian communing with a venerable tree of life, or shepherding a flock of sheep, or sitting down beside still waters, Beauvois comes dangerously close to hagiography, blurring the title and deifying the men.
At his best, though, he keeps the gods in their place and the monks in perspective, not sanctifying but humanizing them. They are certainly capable of fear – young or old, it’s written in their eyes. Yet they are also capable of fear’s transcendence. What buoys them is not just faith but love – a palpable tenderness for their community and for each other.
Watch for the scene of the last supper, set around a wooden table, with wine filling the glasses and Tchaikovsky spilling from the radio. There, Beauvois pans across their faces, as the expressions change from happy smiles to nervous anxiety and finally to a collective resolve. Don’t mistake them for the meek. These are gentle men but strong men, pacific in belief and firm in will.
Of course, like that whirring army helicopter, a sense of imminent doom hovers over the entire picture. Yet death, being inevitable, is an anti-climax here. It’s what survives that counts and is manifest in Brother Luc, who casts his vote to stay – as he stayed through the terrors of the Nazis and then the war of liberation – with a simple phrase spoken in a soft whisper: “I am a free man.”
With or without his gods, in peril again on the squares of Cairo and the streets of Tripoli, surely that man is alive today.
Of Gods and Men
- Directed and written by Xavier Beauvois
- Starring Lambert Wilson and Michael Lonsdale
- Classification: 14A