Xavier Beauvais’ film is a dramatization of the last days of a group of French Trappist monks who were killed during the Islamist rebellion against the Algerian government in 1996. But it doesn’t wear its heart on its sleeve. It’s as austere and reticent as the life of the monks themselves, and earns praise for taking their devotion seriously and presenting their decision to remain at the monastery, despite the increasing danger in the area, as an act of faith, not of foolishness or misplaced bravado. Stark and unsentimental, it’s a quietly powerful piece that encourages reflection rather than tears.
Most of “Of Gods And Men” is given over to the depiction of the community’s regimen and the monks’ conversation about whether to abandon their house or remain true to their vocation by staying. Their abbot, Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson)—a severe, ascetic man with a scholarly bent who studies Islam in order to bridge the growing gap between faiths—struggles to maintain a semblance or normalcy even after the monastery is visited on Christmas Eve by a band of insurgents led by a man (Farid Larbi) whom he manages to reach by quoting the Koran. Of the remaining seven monks, the most memorable are probably Luc (Michael Lonsdale), the elderly, asthmatic physician who tends to the medical needs of the surrounding community and is determined to stay, and Amedee (Jacques Herlin), the aged, emaciated, almost childlike brother who suggests that the community pray together to make the right decision.
But the conflict between religious duty and the survival instinct is played out among the other monks as well—Christophe (Olivier Rabourdin), Jean-Pierre (Loic Pichon), Michel (Xavier Maly) and Paul (Jean-Marie Frin), each of whom enters the debate in the gentle, spiritual, collegial fashion that ultimately leads to consensus. All of the actors were obviously chosen for their facial expressiveness, and they create indelible impressions of alternating serenity and self-doubt.
Beauvais enhances the performances by adopting a direct, unhurried style and emphasizing the ritualistic aspects of the communal life, with repeated scenes of the men in chapel as well as sequences showing them in the refectory, eating their simple meals in silence as spiritual texts are read by one of the monks. He also shows the monks engaged in their own reflections, usually as they write sermons or letters to friends, but also as they go about their daily tasks of cooking, or gardening, or plowing the fields, or bringing in firewood.
There are a few missteps. The way in which Beauvais stages the communal discussions about how to proceed suggests rather too obviously Michelangelo’s “The Last Supper.” The introduction near the close of another monk (Olivier Perrier) must have been based on historical fact, but his absence and return aren’t well explained. And the political circumstances are drawn only in the sketchiest fashion. And though it’s certainly an effective moment, given the current state of the world, it’s perhaps too head-on to have Luc at one point quote Pascal’s dictum that men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.
But the flaws are minor compared to the film’s strengths. “Of Gods and Men” is one of the few pictures to take religious belief seriously without getting maudlin or sanctimonious about it. While genuinely moving, it avoids simplistic moralizing, working in muted tones of gray both emotionally and in terms of the points of view presented.
The film opts for an ending that, like much of what has gone before, is speculative: how the monks died is actually unknown, and there are those who believe that the army, rather than jihadists, was responsible for their murder. But from the standpoint of drama rather than history, “Of Gods And Men” is a powerful film that challenges one to think as well as feel.