Of Gods and Men

Dir: Xavier Beauvois

Rating: 4.0/5.0

Sony Pictures Classics

120 Minutes

Where has God been in cinema lately? While directors such as Bergman and Bresson once used the medium to quietly contemplate His presence, or lack thereof, in modern society, religion most recently has either been the object of ridicule (Religulous) or used as a plot device to create villains (anything with extremists blowing things up). It is getting harder to contemplate God in a world that is hurtling towards both ends of the spectrum: atheist and fundamentalist. Even the documentary Into Great Silence took a passive seat while observing monks going through their daily routines.

Xavier Beauvois’ Of Gods and Men takes a stronger stance, looking at religion as both a benevolent power and a scourge responsible for a multitude of deaths. Set in Algeria during the mid-’90s, Of Gods and Men largely takes place in a Trappist monastery where its members spend their days praying, making honey and helping the Muslim villagers who live nearby. But when Islamic fundamentalists begin killing local Christians, the monks must decide whether to stay and face this rising ripple of fear or flee the monastery.

Of Gods and Men takes its time to reach this quandary, however, giving us ample time to learn about the monks, observe their rituals and watch them interact with the villagers. Unlike in most American films, the delineation between the villagers and the fundamentalists is stark. In a world where we are led to believe that every Muslim is a raving, blood-thirsty ideologue, Beauvois wisely constructs this dichotomy, presenting most of the film’s Muslim characters as reasonable, even fearful of the fundamentalists. It is also impossible to completely consider all positions in the film as an American audience. France’s long history of colonialism is partly responsible for the rise of fundamentalism. Despite the benign presence of the monks, they still represent the tendrils of one society that once subjugated another. However, the monks are not there to colonize but make a difference in the lives of the impoverished villagers. Beauvois makes sure we understand this distinction; but do the fundamentalists?

We learn about the different monks through observation. Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson) is the sect’s proud leader who refuses protection from the Algerian army when a group of Croatian Christians are killed nearby. The Algerians know the monks are a target not only because they are Christians, but also because they hold some meager medical supplies and a doctor (Michael Lonsdale). While some of the monks resolutely decide to stay, a few waver, looking to God and the community to help them make the correct decision. But Of Gods and Men is not about a lack of God. It’s about choosing between duty and failure. And unlike most films where religion is portrayed as a dehumanizing or negative force, Beauvois makes it clear that he sees this band of monks in clearly humanistic terms. Look no further than a haunting scene where the men, resigned to their fate, listen to Swan Lake and enjoy the presence of one another.

The fact that Of Gods and Men is based on a true incident does not add gravitas to the story. I didn’t even realize it until a brief postscript at the end. In a reductive time when the news and other movies only show us the negative, destructive fringes of religion, it is both a refreshing and important reminder that only a small group of people have co-opted the name of God for vile purposes. It is easy to be angry with the Muslims in this film, but being angry with all of its Muslim characters is missing the point entirely. But do the monks make the wrong choice in the end? Is their sacrifice one that comes from pride or devotion? That is really up to you and your ideas on faith. Maybe the best answer of all is not to judge.

by David Harris

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