There was a large outcry when France’s “Of Gods And Men” failed to make the shortlist for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar for 2010. Not having seen it at the time, I figured the film was just another victim of process, wherein each year some widely acclaimed international film(s) is pegged by experts for a nomination and never gets out of the opening round. After finally seeing “Of Gods And Men”, and acknowledging that I still need to see many of the other nominated films, including the Oscar-winning, “In A Better World”, I have to disclose that I have no idea how “Of Gods And Men” did not earn the right to compete for that Oscar.
Directed by Xavier Beauvois, “Of Gods And Men” documents the true story of nine French Cistercian monks who lived in the Tibrihine Monastery in Algeria, until seven of them were kidnapped, abducted, and murdered during escalating conflicts in the 1996 Algerian Civil War. Controversy exists to this very day over who was actually responsible for the abduction and eventual murder of the monks, but Beauvois and his co-screenwriter Etienne Comar opt for the long perceived belief that Algerian terrorists were responsible. And despite the umbrella of sadness and tragedy which hangs over the story, Beauvois’ film is so beautifully rendered and meticulously detailed, that it is simply a marvel to watch.
Opening with a quote from the Bible, “I have said, ‘Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High. But ye shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes.’”, the first 20 minutes of the film are breathtaking in their simplicity. We are observers, watching the monks calmly going through the daily existence. They study the Bible, provide basic medical assistance and aid to the impoverished Muslim community they reside in, counsel local Algerians on life issues, and are proud attendees of a local child’s birthday party. The monks are a vital component to the peace and stability of their community and reign as a trusted, calming, and resonating presence amongst the neighboring Muslim people.
Issues outside of the monastery however begin to infringe on the lives of the monks as a civil war has erupted within Algeria. Extremists are retaliating against what they have earmarked as an oppressive government and when the monks learn of a horrific attack on field workers, everything the monks have stood for and believed to be their purpose – serving their God and their community – is called into question. For perhaps the first time, the monks begin to question their faith, the directions their faith has taken them, and ultimately what their faith tells them is the right, proper, and just decision to make; simply, do they stay or do they go? Each side of the coin presenting a difficult and conflicted dilemma that each monk must consider for themselves, their God, and their community.
“Of Gods And Men” is lyrical and mesmerizing in its minimalism. Beauvois walks us into the monastery and settles us in, almost like a documentarian would present the lives of these monks. The screenplay uses dialogue sparingly at first but the words become more urgent and important as the film presses on and the danger becomes more and more imminent. Affording the position of observer, Beauvois allows us the opportunity to draw emotional connections with these nine monks as they become consumed by their plight. While not explicitly spoken, their trust, fear, and lifelong work rest at the forefront of their minds and yet, when the scholarly, de facto leader of the monks, Christian (Lambert Wilson), and the doctoral and fatherly Luc (Michael Lonsdale) do speak, the other monks hang on every word.
There are powerful moments in “Of Gods And Men” which will stay with me for a long time. The one strong scene of violence in the film catches your breath just as powerfully as the monks’ haunting and ethereal singing will do. Caroline Champetier’s cinematography is exquisite and when the monks are faced with the ultimate decision of staying or fleeing their home, an achingly powerful scene unfolds. Punctuated by music from “Swan Lake”, Beauvois quietly and unobtrusively takes the camera around to each monk and lets their faces speak in ways words never could. In a film of memorable moments, this ranks has one of the most profoundly moving scenes I have seen in some time.
The ultimate dichotomy here, provided rhetorically at best by Beauvois and Etienne Coter’s screenplay, is that the terrorists – the Algerians who are striving to reclaim their country back – are also believing that they are serving a purpose larger than themselves. They see their cause as selfless and because of the violence which punctuates their actions, their mission seems to accost the very nature of what the monks stand for. Beauvois steers away from drawing distinctions with the difficult parallels which exist between the monks and the extremists’ beliefs. Perhaps, that is indeed another film for another time, but an angle I pondered while watching the story unfold.
“Of Gods And Men” is a film that will simply stick around you for awhile. It raises questions within us and about us and straddles the line expertly in telling a politically-charged story from an objective and unbiased place. Being French, I have no doubts that Xavier Beauvois has some strong opinions about the events and incidents which ended the lives of seven of those nine Tibrihine monks. And yet, Beauvois has not made a populist or even incendiary film. He has delivered a dignified film of power and beauty; one which presents the awesome power of faith in self and others that is nothing short of inspirational.