#122 Of Gods And Men
(2010, Xavier Beauvois)
Des hommes et des dieux
“I could never desire such a death”
It’s interesting that a few movies I’ve watched so far have introduced me to events of history that I otherwise would never have thought of – events that often get lost in history in certain parts of the world because it could distort pre-established notions or it simply doesn’t concern people, no matter how fascinating those events are when put on film.
A while back I reviewed Rabbit-Proof Fence, a film about the Stolen Generations of Aborigine people in Australia. While I didn’t care for the film, it got me thinking about how little it’s talked about, and also how anyone supporting that idea could genuinely believe it was helping those who got caught up in the whole thing. And now, Of Gods And Men draws attention to the Algerian Civil War. I didn’t even know Algeria had a civil war; hell, I barely know anything about Algeria. However, it certainly opened my eyes to the situation that arose there, and it certainly raised issues about the relationship of certain religious groups elsewhere in the world.
Based on a true story, the movie centres on a group of French Trappist monks living in the mountains of Algeria. Despite what certain organisations would have you believe, the monks lived peacefully with their neighbours in a predominantly Muslim village. This strong bond was severed with the arrival of a radical Islamic group responsible for kicking off the civil war. Innocent people in various towns and villages were being slaughtered to further the group’s ends, compelling the monks to decide whether to flee home to France or stand their ground in solidarity with the villagers that they’d worked so hard to build a rapport with.
I went into Of Gods And Men expecting an incredibly dull movie, possibly with excessive references to how Jesus can save everyone when they need it. So it was genuinely surprising when I found myself genuinely moved by it. Faith is a part of the events, but it doesn’t take a central role. The monks’ decision to stay in the village is marked just as much by the friendships they had developed as a brotherhood as well as their great love and respect for the community they had become a solid part of. In essence, it’s a story of respect, of love and of solidarity at its core, and this is why it works.
The movie starts off slow, establishing the monks’ relationship with the villagers. Far from living isolated from the Muslim community, the two communities mix despite their religious differences. The monks provide counselling and healthcare to the villagers, and the villagers invite the monks to their celebrations and prayer sessions. The movie does a fantastic job of showing the connection the communities have, and it serves a second purpose – it prevents the movie from becoming an anti-Islamic rant, something a movie on a subject like this could easily descend uncomfortably into.
Once the atrocities start, we tend to stay very sheltered from the action, and yet it’s felt throughout the movie. We only really see one major attack from the terrorists, and the rest of the time we’re sheltered from it. But we don’t need to see more, since the mere threat of more attacks creates huge tension, hanging a shadow over everything else that happens. We know the monks are going to come under attack from terrorists at some point, but we just never know when.
Pretty much everything director Xavier Beauvois has done with this movie is spot on. The pacing is perfect; it’s slow and methodical, much like the monks’ lives would be. It also adds the right amount of tension.
The performances are also fantastic. Lambert Wilson conveys Brother Christian’s deeply conflicted decision to stay or go perfectly, while Michael Lonsdale is fantastic as the stubborn but gentle Brother Luc. I also loved Brother Christophe’s conflict of faith that runs throughout the movie, with Olivier Rabourdin putting the right amount of confusion and sadness into his performance.
I also loved the subtle use of sound to represent the monks’ quiet lifestyle. Much of the start of the movie is entirely silent, and indeed, there are moments where sound is subtle. The extended use of a helicopter hovering over the monastery while the monks pray is a simple and effective way of showing how much the peace has been disturbed. There’s also a fantastic scene where the only sound is the music playing at their Easter celebration while we see them move from cheerful to tearing up from their conflict and realisation that this could be their last major meal together.
It’s not going to be for everyone, of course. As a slow movie, it’s only really going to appeal to people who appreciate very humanistic movies over anything showy and spectacular. But it is a surprisingly fascinating and moving look at the power of faith and community in a time where it’s hard to hold onto either.
Starring Lambert Wilson, Michael Lonsdale, Olivier Rabourdin, Philippe Laudenbach, Jacques Herlin, Loic Pichon, Xavier Maly, Jean-Marie Frin, Olivier Perrier, Sabrina Ouazani, Farid Larbi & Adel Bencherif
Written by Etienne Comar & Xavier Beauvois
Produced by Pascal Cacheteux & Etienne Comar
Cinematography by Caroline Champetier
Edited by Marie-Julie Maille
Favourite Scene: Christian surprises the terrorist leader by quoting the Quran at him, and subsequently earns the monks some brief respect.
Scene That Bugged Me: I can’t remember the specifics, but there was one scene with the monks’ car breaking down that seemed incredibly pointless
Watch it if: You want an insight into the Algerian Civil War
Avoid it if: Any mention of religion makes you uncomfortable, no matter how small