It’s 1996 and civil war strikes Algeria. The fundamentalist Islamic rebel forces have thrown the French colonised, Christian areas of the country into disarray. A small monastery of Trappist monks, peacefully living in useful symbiosis with the surrounding village, must decide whether to risk of their lives and stay, or flee back to France.
The monks are led by Christian (Lambert Wilson), a quiet man of books and thoughts. Bespectacled and sensible, he’s presented as the brains of the operation. The heart, however, is Luc (Michael Lonsdale), an ageing doctor with an easygoing nature and a thorough knowledge and acceptance of how the world works. The rest of the flock is made up of men of all ages, scared and brave, all comfortable in their calling and the ritual that accompanies it.
From the very beginning it is obvious that the relationship between the monks and the villagers is neccessary and enjoyed. The village grew up around the monastery, with the monks called upon for everything from medical care to legal work, letter writing, translation and even employment. The monks, in turn, need people to care for and a reason for being in this remote corner of Algeria. When the civil war becomes inevitable, both communities are worried and shocked at the possibility of change.
Of Gods and Men presents two very different perspectives on religion. One side is using god’s name to seize land, gain power and subjugate the citizens whilst the other side is using their faith as a crutch to help them through an austere but peaceful life. Never falling into the obvious Christian versus Muslims get out, Of Gods and Men takes pains to point out the problems with fundamentalism and how it ignores the very tenets a religion is built on.
It’s a beautiful script, penned (and directed) by Xavier Beauvois, full of images that speak lifetimes and a dialogue delivered with an authentic, natural style by a group of actors unfamiliar enough to leave any baggage at home, creating a totally believable depiction of a modern monastery.
As the war escalates, Christian feels strongly that the monks must remain, trusting in god to protect them. His views are not shared by all and the group becomes a democracy, voting on whether to stay or go. The situation is exasperated by a night time raid for medical supplies by the rebels, further scaring the doubters. This raid is resolved by Christian, reasoning with the attacker’s leader. He gives a pitch perfect performance of an ordinary man showing extroardinary courage.
There comes a moment when, having decided to stay (the moral, brave, righteous choice), the monks sit down to eat. Luc provides two bottle of red wine and a cassette of Swan Lake. The contrast with the austere lives seen before is sharp. Imagine how a decent red would taste after years of enforced abstinance? The music gets louder and we see each man’s face in close up and then further, into their future.
The film works hard to achieve this sequence of extravagance. No music outside the monks chanting is heard before Swan Lake is used and emotions are kept in check, each word or thought ruminated on and displayed with the utmost care. Suddenly the monk’s faces crease with smiles and we see the comfortable realisation of their fate and peace with the decision that has been made. The men sit back and await what’s coming. It’s a tour de force of pictoral moments, affecting the perception of what has come before and presaging wih skill the few scenes left. Having been left breathless by this and fearing the worst, the remaining images hit with hammer force, achieving an emotional impact that lasts far beyond the credits. This scene raises the film to exalted levels, cementing it in our collective memory, lifting the ending to a poignant, painful place, all too familiar in it’s depiction of the mis-use of religion and it’s consequences.