Of Gods and Men

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Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
   Of Gods and Men
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

A small outpost near the city of Algiers is the long time home for a tiny band of Trappist monks who have dedicated their lives to help the sick and poor among the mainly Muslim locals. They have lived in harmony with their neighbors and the abbey is a peaceful oasis in a country entering the throes of civil war. That war, though, will rear its ugly head and the eight monks and their faith will be put under the most severe test “Of Gods and Men.”

Filmmaker Xavier Beauvois bases his elegant, thoughtful drama on the real life influence of a group of Cistercian Trappist monks whose lives are dedicated to helping others. The film languidly portrays their day to day lives as one, Brother Luc (Michael Lonsdale), ministers to the village sick with his meager supply of medicine. The monks, led by Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson), farm the land around the abbey and make honey to sell to the villagers. Theirs is a symbiotic and peaceful existence as the monks fulfill their vow to help their fellow man.

The life of the monks seems destined to continue on its idyllic path but political and religious turmoil shake the country during the 1990s and Islamist extremists are fighting to overthrow the Algerian government. The war seems far away to the brothers and they refuse protection from the army and dismiss the village mayor’s pleas that they leave. When the fanatic extremists land on their doorstep, demanding medicine and supplies, Brother Christian faces off with the rebel leader and, quoting from the sacred Koran, convinces him to leave. The threat, though, is far from over and the fanatics continue their terror against the infidels in their country, attacking a party of Croatian workers and slitting their throats. The monks must make a decision: to stay or leave.

While the turmoil of 1990s Algeria is the big picture that hangs on “Of Gods and Men,” it is the wonderful and visually striking view into the cloistered world of this tiny colony of deeply religious monks. When they are not toiling in the fields, treating the ill and feeding the poor, the brothers spend their time studying the great religious works and giving alms to God. Their faith in God and belief in His protection sets some of the brothers, especially Christian, to vote to stay put and continue their ministrations to their flock. Others question the sense in staying when real danger lurks nearby. Their faith, though, will unite the eight into a single-minded decision to continue their mission for God.

For the most part, the monks are the center of the film as it lyrically shows their daily existence, including the age-old rituals that have been the staple of the monastic faith for centuries. Director/co-writer Beauvois spends time showing life in the abbey, an island for the brothers’ religious faith, and it is a beautiful thing to see and hear (when they sing to their God and themselves). Cinematographer Caroline Champetier, using a static camera to frame the monks’ rituals of faith, captures both the beauty and simplicity of the ceremonies of the faithful. The depth of their faith is palpable and their dedication to their flock is quite moving.

The cast, led by Lonsdale and Wilson, creates complex characters within their simple life. They live, day by day, their faith in God and Man and the result is a moving, empathetic film that pays homage to the goodness of these dedicated men. The film has a poetic flow to it that is punctuated with the horrors taking place just beyond the walls of the abbey. “Of Gods and Men” leaves you with both a feeling of hope and of sadness. The hope is that such men of pious faith exist. The sadness is that there are so few such people. I give it an A.

A French Catholic monastery in a poor Algerian community provides medical services and charitable aid while working side by side with the locals and trading Trappist goods at the local market.  But a civil war means extremists have begun to terrorize the countryside and the eight monks who live among the Muslims must decide whether to leave or stand beside them in "Of Gods and Men."

Writer/director Xavier Beauvois ("Le petit lieutenant") has made a deeply moving docudrama based on a true story which uses music in provocative ways.  He begins with an almost jaunty piano piece as we observe the monks, then punctuates his film with sequences where the monks chant psalms whose words comment upon their current situation.  The film has no actual score, but climaxes with Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake in an incredibly moving scene of acceptance, brotherhood and beauty.

The monks' leader, Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson, "The Matrix Revolutions," "Private Fears in Public Places"), is an academic who studies religions, particularly the religion of the people they live amongst, Muslims who decry such acts as the killing of a young woman who dared to board a bus without wearing a veil.  Christian's knowledge of the Koran helps him form a tenuous understanding with Ali Fayattia (Farid Larbi, "A Prophet"), the leader of an extremist arm who muscle their way into the monastery on Christmas night, demanding that Brother Luc (Michael Lonsdale, "The Last Mistress," "Agora") leave with them to treat one of their own.

The Wali offers military protection and their own country demands that they leave Algeria, but the eight decide to find their own paths.  Brother Christophe (Olivier Rabourdin, "13 Tzameti," "Taken") struggles the most mightily, but eventually the monks all decide to stay.  Beauvois fortells their fate, once as Luc examines his assistant, Brother Amédée (Jacques Herlin, "The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc"), the eldest among them, later when Christian is called to identify the body of Fayattia.

Amidst all this religious and political upheaval is a reverie on the beauty of life as seen in the everyday.  Christophe tills a garden with a local girl.  They bend and dig, planting, and after a hard day's work stand together in the sunset.  Brother Luc washes dishes.  Others tend to beehives, harvesting honey to be sold in the market.  Simple meals are shared with pleasure.

The film is very well acted, each of the monks forging a distinct personality.  Six of the monks perished and although their exact fate is unknown Beauvois's imagining is a stunner.  An equal mystery is why France's submission for the Foreign Language Oscar failed to win a nomination.

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