Of Gods and Men is an extremely powerful French drama based on true experiences a group of monks who remained in Algeria in the 1990s even after their lives were threatened by Islamic radicals. The film is masterfully directed by Xavier Beauvois who co-wrote the screenplay. At Cannes, Of Gods and Men received the runner-up Grand Prix. It's also France's selection for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. The high level of accomplishment throughout will receive strong critical reviews and draw arthouse patrons. The somber subject may prevent the film from getting as large an audience as it deserves.
In their monasteries, the Cistercian-Trappist monks live the traditional life of prayer, contemplation and, for much of their day, silence. Christian (Lambert Wilson, The Matrix Reloaded) leads the eight monks who live near a remote village in Algeria. The cinematography of Caroline Champetier skillfully gives the monks' daily life and rituals a feeling of timelessness, even though the story takes place in a modern era. They pray in a shadowy room and read while sitting at desks with lamps lighting only their personal areas.
The monks refrain from evangelization and work to improve the lives of the people amongst whom they live. The aging Luc, portrayed with a very warm presence by Michael Lonsdale (Agora), provides medical care for the villagers. Their Muslim neighbors accept the monks as an important part of the community: the monks participate in the Muslim ritual for the son of their friend and a young girl is comfortable enough to confide to Luc about her romantic uncertainties.
After Islamic radicals kill Croatians working on a construction project, all foreigners in the area, including the peaceful monks, are in danger. Christian refuses protection from the government, believing collaboration with a government he considers corrupt will severely compromise their community, but the monks are not all in agreement with their leader. With quiet force Christian argues that their duty is to remain committed to their mission. Other monks, including Christophe (Olivier Rabourdin), disagree and urge departure. The monks come to consensus, putting their beliefs in love and compassion into practice in a high-risk situation. In a beautifully filmed scene, Christian ponders the future while walking by a lake in an isolated area.
Director Beauvois brings a deep sensitivity to the decisions of the monks as they continue to go about their religious rituals in the monastery and help out their neighbors. These spiritual monks have the emotional intensity of the more physically conflicted characters in Beauvois' previous films, like Le Petit Lieutenant. Let by Wilson, the actors portraying the monks are superb. In a particularly potent scene, as they hear the sound of an approaching helicopter, the monks put their arms around the shoulders of the others standing next to them, emphasizing their solidarity.
At his tribute at the Telluride Film Festival, director Peter Weir (Master and Commander) said that with all the available special effects, there is still nothing like the close-up. This is aptly proven in Of Gods and Men with the most memorable recent use of cinematic close-up. In an outstanding sequence, the monks are having dinner. They smile at their fellowship, but their faces darken with the agonizing recognition of the fate that may await them. Their poignant story resonates long afterward.
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Cast: Lambert Wilson, Michael Lonsdale, Olivier Rabourdin, Philippe Laudenbach and Jacques Herlin
Director: Xavier Beauvois
Screenwriters: Etienne Comar and Xavier Beauvois
Producers: Pascal Caucheteux and Etienne Comar
Genre: Drama; French-language, subtitled
Rating: R for a scene of graphic violence.
Running time: 122 min
Release Date: February 18 NY/LA