Of Gods and Men (Des hommes et des dieux)
France (2010) Dir. Xavier Beauvois
In war torn Algeria, a group of nine Trappist monks live and work at the Monastery de l’Atlas of Tibhirine, bringing aid and comfort to the local community around which is predominantly Muslim. As the war intensifies a group of Islamic fundamentalists arrive at the monastery on Christmas Eve demanding one of their men be treated.
Elected lead monk Christian (Lambert Wilson) denies the terrorists entry, only to later receive notification that they are being asked to leave Algeria and return to France. The monks therefore have to decide whether their mission is more important than their welfare.
Based on the real events of 1996, Xavier Beauvois’s film just missed out on the Best Foreign Language award at the 2011 Oscars (losing to another French film Outside The Law). It is a tale of faith, brotherhood and choices, exploring the downfall of a simple and peaceful arrangement brought about by external forces, resulting in an unpunished crime after seven the monks were abducted and murdered, their killers’ identities never known. It was actually filmed in Morocco but the attention to detail and accuracy never gives away this fact to the audience.
The monks under Christian’s leadership – Luc (Michael Lonsdale), Christophe (Olivier Rabourdin), Célestin (Philippe Laudenbach), Amédée (Jacques Herlin), Jean-Pierre (Loïc Pichon), Michel (Xavier Maly), Paul (Jean-Marie Frin) and Bruno (Olivier Perrier) – live modest lives with meagre possessions, cultivating their own stock and produce which they also share with the people of the nearby village, who have accepted the monks as their own, with Luc serving as the resident doctor of the village treating the impoverished and needy.
When the fundamentalists murder some Croatian workers in the village, the corrupt local authority offers the monks military protection which Christian autonomously refuses, upsetting the other monks who find themselves open to the question of whether they should stay or not. While the monks are pondering this dilemma, the military up their campaign to intimidate the monks serving only to solidify their position.
At two hours in length this is a slow film in places; the first twenty minutes almost soporifically lay the foundation for the relationship between the monks and the villagers, albeit through some stunning photography. But pace isn’t supposed to be an issue even with the war theme loitering in the background, instead the quiet passages are bringing the viewer into the monks’ personal place of meditation and rumination as they consider their futures in Algeria.
These moments will either test your patience or captivate you with their silent power, the scene where Christian sits conflicted by a lake as birds fly overhead is especially poignant. Later on once the monks have made their decision they sit around a sparse dinner table with a glass of wine each as Swan Lake plays via an old cassette recorder.
No dialogue, just the monks faces as the music’s sweeping majesty somehow channels their inner thoughts from their fears to their pride in a unanimous decision to the fragments of hope they have that they can continue their mission. A touching and endearing scene indeed, especially when we learn this would be their own last supper.
Traditional hymns also feature heavily as part of the monks’ daily rituals and are usually presented in full. This may be something of a chore to sit through if religion isn’t your bag (hello!) but they serve a purpose to the plot representing the expression of faith and strength the monks need to persevere during this testing time – the daily routine of prayer and hymns helping those undecided about the move consider their positions.
In one of the defining moments in the film a military helicopter is deliberately flown over the monastery during their prayer session which the monks defiantly respond to by singing their hymns louder! Even with the prominent religious themes this is not a film about religion, but more about faith itself with no bias shown towards Christianity and Islam; the key ideal depicted is how the two faiths can co-exist, which even the Islamic terrorists are happy to adhere to since the Quran decrees Christians as like brothers to Muslim.
Aside from the gorgeous cinematography the film boasts some wonderful performances from the cast including a thoughtful and revealing turn from Lambert Wilson as Christian, a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders. His fellow monks are largely elderly and as such the wizened life experiences of these actors go along way to their convincing essaying of their tragically now deceased characters.
While the story is an uplifting and encouraging one, the arthouse approach and tepid pace is likely to cost it some viewers among those who prefer their stories to unfold with more haste, but the message still gets through regardless, carrying with it a poignant chill from being based on real events.
Of Gods and Men may have missed out on an Oscar but its resonance will certainly be felt much longer after its counterpart has been forgotten. A sublime and thoughtful slice of world cinema.