'Of Gods and Men' Deliberately Effective
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
One of the more substantial homegrown box-office hits of its native France in recent years, "Of Gods and Men" fictionalizes a real-life event that took place during the 1996 civil war in Algeria, a former French colony. Seven Trappist monks from France who ran a monastery in Tibhirine were beheaded under circumstances that remain obscure (there is speculation that they might have been killed by their suspected kidnappers, a group of Islamic extremists, or by the Algerian army "proper" itself). This occurred after the men had opted not to flee from their monastery in spite of mounting conflict, with the extremist insurgents in their surrounding village killing civilians for violations of Sharia law.
The movie, directed by Xavier Beauvois from a script by Beauvois and Etienne Comar (and which I first saw at 2010's New York Film Festival, and wrote about in a separate dispatch from which this review is reiterating certain observations) doesn't announce itself as anything like a political thriller or, for that matter, a parable of religious faith. (It also doesn't announce where these events are taking place, an elision that led many of my colleagues to infer that the film was set in Afghanistan.) It spends its first half-hour very meticulously depicting the everyday routines both of the monks, and of the residents of the village they service. And these fellows do perform service: The monastery's doctor, Luc, played by a magisterially stooped and compassionate Michael Lonsdale (longtime cinephiles and Orson Welles fans may recall the rather more forbidding and sinister priest Lonsdale played in 1962's "The Trial") is a very busy and tired man. The movie goes to great pains to also make plain that these monks are more about service than about religious conversion. From the head monk, Christian (Lambert Wilson), on down, these kind men are intimately involved with and accepting of the people around them. Christian himself seems fairly intimate with the Koran. Even before the insurgents make their way to the village, it's clear that life there is hard; the sometimes severe landscape is well-conveyed by Caroline Champetier's sharp, seasonally sensitive cinematography.
Once the trouble starts coming, the monks understand pretty quickly that it's should-we-stay-or-should-we-go time, and some of them are pretty definite on the go side. "I didn't become a monk to become a martyr," one of their number states, and the sentiment seems inarguable. But the line also reminds us that there were times and places when and where practicing Christianity was inviting martyrdom. We're told that Islamic fundamentalists enthusiastically embrace martyrdom. Is it an intrinsic feature of certain faiths' "reformations" that such notions are eventually put by the wayside? What's the circumstance by which the notion of martyrdom has become associated with a particular brand of barbarity? These questions do not get explicitly asked in the film, but they're certainly insinuated, as is the big question of what the proper place and function of faith is in the modern or post-modern world.
These questions and considerations are so skillfully woven into the immediate narrative that a viewer could ignore them if so inclined. What can't be ignored is the eventual emotional impact of the film. The deep -- some might say foolhardy -- conviction embodied by Wilson's Christian eventually seeps into the souls of the more skittish monks. This process is moved along by several frightened villagers making clear their deep need for the monastery's presence. Several of the residents go into some detail on how the monks made their current, relatively placid (up until now) lives possible. When a monk invokes the metaphor of birds perched on a branch with respect to their situation, a woman of the village corrects that monks: You are not the birds on the branch, she says to him; you are the branch.
The film is finally about how these men come to gradually accept that fact. There's no road-to-Damascus blinding light moment to be had here. Instead, there is a gradual solidifying, a taking-root, accompanied by incidental pleasures, sorrows, and some rather typically French ironies, as when Lonsdale's Luc recalls Pascal's observation that evil is never more cheerfully accomplished as when it's done in the name of religious conviction. The generosity with which Beauvois and his wonderful cast share the lives of these men with the viewer makes the losses that end the film that much harder to bear. Be prepared to be shaken.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.