Xavier Beauvois’ multiple-award-winning Of Gods and Men is one of those increasingly rare things in modern cinema—a deeply-felt, powerful film about religious faith that has no interest in peddling the gospel to the viewer. Perhaps that’s because the eight monks at the center of the film appear far more concerned about helping the Islamic people in the small Algerian town they inhabit than they are in converting them to Christianity. Indeed, they go out of their way—especially in one particularly dramatic instance—to note the connections between the two religions rather than concentrate on its differences.
The film is based—loosely by its own admission—on the lives of the Cistercian monks of Tibhirine in Alegeria who were kidnapped in 1996, and is as much a political drama—flirting with being a political thriller on occasion—as it is drama about faith. The brothers—headed up by Christian (Lambert Wilson, Flawless)—find their region more and more threatened by Islamic-fundamentalist terrorists. The threat to them personally has grown so great that the army wants to station soldiers at their little monastery to protect them, something that Christian rejects out of hand—not entirely to the satisfaction of all the others, and definitely not to the satisfaction of the army.
As the situation deteriorates—with more and more acts of terrorism in the surrounding area—it becomes a point of debate as to whether the monks oughtn’t either return to France, or at least relocate to a safer spot in North Africa. This is the point where the film genuinely establishes itself as a more intelligent drama than it might easily have been. The easy path would have been for Of Gods and Men to have presented the monks as uniformly heroic, presenting a united front against the idea of leaving, and never wavering in what could have come across as—well, willful wrongheadedness. But the film takes a very different path, a much more satisfying and believable one.
Despite Christian’s general determination that they stay, not all the monks are sold on the wisdom of this—one going so far as to state he has no desire to be a martyr. For that matter, Christian himself isn’t single-minded on the topic. We find him waffling when the government makes the case for them leaving. We also find him being convinced of staying—at least for the time being—not by religious conviction and the idea that God will protect them (they’re all too human to quite buy into that), but by locals who view the humanitarian monks as “the branch on which we’re perched.”
There may be no real surprises in the way the events play out, but Beauvois and his co-writer Etienne Comar have devised several key sequences of both immense power and beauty—a Christmas Eve interrupted by a terrorist seeking medical aid, a tense scene of the brothers singing while an army helicopter hovers ominously over them, a simple scene where they listen to part of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake while seated at dinner. And then there’s the film’s ending, about which I’ll say little except that it straddles the literal with the allegorical while never actually departing from reality. In other words, see this movie. Rated PG-13 for a momentary scene of startling wartime violence, some disturbing images and brief language (based on a re-screening; originally rated R for a scene of graphic violence).