Xavier Beauvois’ beautiful, spare, powerful film Of Gods and Men, which premiered at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Grand Prix, is based on the true story of a group of French Trappist monks living in Algeria who were killed by Islamic terrorists in 1996. But knowing the grisly ending (the monks were, in fact, beheaded, although the film doesn’t mention–or, thankfully, show–that awful detail) doesn’t take away from the story’s power; if anything, it makes the viewing experience all the more heartbreaking.
The plot, which is sparse but riveting, centers on the monks’ deliberations over whether they should stay in Algeria despite the threat of violence, or flee to France, where they will be safe. Each man struggles in his own way, both within himself and with God, to find an answer–an answer that we already know ends in death. And yet somehow, Of Gods and Men doesn’t end on a note of wrist-slitting darkness. On the contrary, Beauvois creates an uplifting meditation on faith and courage.
The monks, led by Brother Christian (the excellent Lambert Wilson, whom US audiences may recognize as The Merovingian from The Matrix movies), live an austere life of faith and service at a picturesque monastery up the hill from a poverty-stricken village. The townspeople depend on the monks for medical care–which is doled out by Brother Luc (Michael Lonsdale), an asthmatic Santa Claus doppelganger–as well as for religious guidance. But when a group of local Croatian construction workers are killed by an armed fundamentalist group, the monks find themselves both targets and potential saviors. “We feel like birds on a branch,” one of the monks says to the community’s governing board, explaining their concern for their safety. “We are the birds,” a local woman corrects him. “You are the branch.”
Beauvois lets the tale unfold slowly, letting the camera linger on many a silent moment. The actors’ faces must often convey much more than their words, and while Wilson and Lonsdale are standouts, Jacques Herlin, who plays the wizened, almost childlike Amédée, and Olivier Rabourdin, who plays Christophe, the most fearful and tortured of the bunch, are thrilling to watch. Especially moving are the many scenes in which the monks chant and sing; as the story progresses the words of their prayers take on new meaning.
The one scene that feels overwrought is the climactic last supper that the monks share together shortly before their capture. As Tchaikovsky’s haunting Swan Lake score plays from a tape deck, the brothers silently pass around wine and food while Beauvois pans around the table, settling again and again on each man’s face, moving closer and closer with each round. If the rest of the film had not been so restrained, this might not seem so unnecessarily melodramatic. Then again, I might be overreacting. I couldn’t see too well due to my hysterical weeping.
After the swells of Swan Lake die down, Of Gods and Men returns to form, reaching its ending in a quiet, wrenching, dignified way that befits the incredible men who inspired it. The viewer is left awestruck, bereft, and full of the joy that comes from witnessing a true act of faith.
OF GODS AND MEN
Running time 123 minutes
Written by Xavier Beauvois and Etienne Comar
Directed by Xavier Beauvois
Starring Lambert Wilson, Michael Lonsdale, Olivier Rabourdin