"Of Gods and Men" is one of the most austerely beautiful movies about the monastic life that I've ever seen. Based on true events, it's about eight Cistercian monks from France who lived in the Algerian mountains in the 1990s before being kidnapped in 1996 by Islamist terrorists.
The director Xavier Beauvois and his coscreenwriter Etienne Comar set up a duality between the meditative life of the monks, with their interspersed silences and their four daily hours of chanting, and the outside world, with its violent incursions and threats. And yet the film-makers never seek to define either of these worlds as more "real" than the other.
The monks are, in essence, spiritual vessels, but no more so than the Algerian villagers with whom they live peaceably (and whom they make no attempt to convert). The film's thesis is expressed by the order's ostensible leader, Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson), whose testament, set down when death is imminent, blames no one. "I know which caricatures of Islam a certain Islamism encourages," he writes. "This country and Islam, for me, are something else. They are a body and a soul." The monks refuse military protection not because they are willing to die – many of them, in fact, are initially in favor of fleeing to France – but because to do so would place them above the station of all those villagers who are equally terrorized.
The monks are rebuked by the local police chief for being remnants of French colonialism. (The military mind cannot, almost by definition, comprehend their devotionalism.) They are castigated for being naifs, but Christian and the others do not disagree that evil must be destroyed – they just do not want to be the destroyers. They trust in Providence. "Help will come from the Lord," says Christian, knowing full well, as do the others, that they will be martyred.
One of the most strangely moving sequences in the film occurs near the end, when Luc (Michael Lonsdale), who also serves as a doctor to the villagers, puts on a recording of Tchaikovsky's Grand Theme from "Swan Lake" as the monks assemble themselves for a makeshift Last Supper. The camera slowly pans across the assemblage, giving each face the full weight of its wonderment, stopping especially to rest on Christophe (Olivier Rabourdin), who earlier had repeatedly cried out to God, "Don't abandon me," and on Amédée (Jacques Herlin), whose 80-year-old eyes sparkle through his fear.
In this scene, which comes after much soul-wrenching about the proper course of action, the prayerful contemplation of the monks' lives reaches its greatest resonance. It has a serene peacefulness – a finality. The power of such a sequence is enhanced rather than diminished by the film's embrace of the world outside the monastery walls – the world the monks are soon to leave.
Early in the film a pretty village girl asks Luc, her confidant, to explain how one knows when one is in love, and, surprisingly, his response – which talks about a quickening of the heart, an intensification of existence itself – refers back to his secular life before he found God. Without moments like these, "Of Gods and Men" might have seemed too rarefied. It is only by allowing the monks their full measure of humanity that we are also able to perceive the wholeness of their spirituality.
Although it would be wrenchingly wrong to describe "Of Gods and Men" as a political movie for our times, it expresses, with implicit force, more about the communion and disharmony of faiths than just about any other contemporary movie I know. The proper response to this film is, I think, a kind of exhilarated bewilderment. It's a transcendently uplifting tragedy. Grade: A (Rated PG-13 for a momentary scene of startling wartime violence, some disturbing images, and brief language.)