The French film Of Gods and Men is quiet and contemplative, in tune with its subject, a group of eight Christian monks who live in a secluded monastery in North Africa. Their life is informed by prayer, communal meals, contemplation and service to the poor people in their community.
It may be difficult to understand just why the film was so controversial in France upon its release. Despite the decades that have passed, France has not adequately assimilated its colonialist legacy, and the wound that was the French war in Algeria remains.
The film is based on a true story. It is set in a secluded corner of the Atlas Mountains during the 1990s Algerian civil war. As the plot unveils, militants terrorize the countryside. The monks are warned to leave. But this community of monks, lead by Christian, played by Lambert Wilson, believes they can be at peace with their surroundings. They are open to understanding the people, culture and religion around them and living among them in harmony. Brother Christian studies the Koran. The local people help the monks till their small farm; the monks assist with medical care. The local people dismiss reports of violence by Islamic fundamentalists by saying, “They haven’t read the Koran!”
Still, the crisis arrives on the doorstep – literally – when a band of the militants shows up at the monastery bearing guns, demanding treatment for a wounded bandleader.
Of Gods and Men is more about character than about action, questioning the meaning of faith and commitment rather than resolving a dramatic conflict. Should the monks stay, or should they go? This moral dilemma becomes the central struggle and self-confrontation for the eight men. For the monks, it is no longer a question of what God wants them to do. The question is who and what they are in terms of their character. How to reconcile personal safety with a lifetime of single-minded devotion and commitment?
Their life of prayer, service and song is confronted by the external danger and rising personal anxiety. The anxiety builds and culminates in a moving dinner they have together, as they share a bottle of wine and listen to a tape of the “Dying Swan” from Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.” The analogy to The Last Supper is haunting.
The eight actors playing the monks in the film very much function as an ensemble. But the truly great performance which director Xavier Beauvois gets out of his cast belongs to Michael Lonsdale as the ageing Brother Luc, who ministers medicine for the villagers, and whose sensitive face belies a near-wicked sense of irony.
Of Gods and Men is studied and sober, pitting the isolated monks who face an ultimate test of courage and faith against a delicate and beautiful landscape.
The fact that the monks in the film – and in real life – were ultimately martyred is seen by some in purely Christian terms as Xavier Beauvois’ modern re-imagination of The Passion. But the film is smart in not delineating a finite point of view. It focuses, instead, on the meaning of personal faith and commitment no matter the circumstance -- without judging those who decide to break with their commitment for personal safety and, in all likelihood, good common sense.
Because Xavier Beauvois focuses on questions that are universal, the themes in Of Gods and Men resonate not only for France and its legacy in Algeria, but for what will continue to be pressing moral issues throughout North Africa and the Middle East. To stay or to go is as prescient as “to be or not to be.” Another filmmaker, Jean-Luc Godard, in a famous quote rephrased it, “To be or not to be. That is not really a question.”