Of Gods and Men ✮✮✮✮
by Glenn Lovell
At a time when 90 percent of our daily news has something to do with international conflict, it does the heart good to happen upon a movie about brotherhood and the importance of peaceful coexistence. France’s “Of Gods and Men,” the grand prize winner at last year’s Cannes Festival, offers up just such a message in a finely wrought, quietly observed ensemble piece starring Lambert Wilson and the 79-year-old Michael Lonsdale, whose jowly, hangdog countenance has graced over half a century of great cinema.
For the average filmgoer, I’m betting, this will sound about as enticing as a Sunday morning pledge drive by a televangelist in seersucker. Just what the world needs, right? More proselytizing by self-anointed saints.
The beauty of director Xavier Beauvois’s fact-based drama (in French with English subtitles) is that, while it glories in the day-to-day rituals of a Catholic order in North Africa, it doesn’t force feed its message. Indeed, it takes a rather secular approach to religion, demonstrating how it can both empower and cripple, teach and obfuscate.
Clearly no saints these eight men who finally decide to take a stand. In this respect they’re closer to the myopic missionary of Bruce Beresford’s “The Black Robe” than the holier-than-thou St. Francis of Assisi in Zefferelli’s “Brother Sun, Sister Moon.”
The setting is a mountain monastery in Algeria. The time: early ’90s, as fundamentalist Islamic guerrillas wage war on the military-backed government. The monks of Tibhirine ‒ led by Father Christian (Wilson) ‒ minister to the needs of nearby villagers without trying to convert them. They, in turn, are more than tolerated as community do-gooders. The message is clear: Regardless of what you call yourself ‒ Christian or Muslim ‒ we are equal in the eyes of the “Unique Master” (Christian’s term).
Without stressing the details of this particular time or place ‒ thereby adding to the universality of the story ‒ Beauvois takes us through the monks’ daily routine, their morning prayers, communal meals, visits to town. Father Luc (Lonsdale), the elderly asthmatic doctor, takes walk-ins, and there are always plenty seated outside his door.
We’re cautiously impressed by the arrangement, even as reports of sectarian violence mount. A teen-age girl who appeared in public without her hijab is stabbed in the heart. We learn about this second-hand from her uncle. The massacre of Croatian workers by rebels is shown in graphic detail. Soon, a rebel leader appears at the monastery gate, inquiring, “Where is the Pope?” He wants Father Luc to accompany him, to treat his wounded.
Father Christian stands his ground. The doctor stays; he’s needed in the village.
Next the military comes knocking with a promise of protection. Again, Christian says no.
This unilateral pronouncement causes a schism. How dare Christian speak for everyone. Had they been consulted, says Celestin (Philippe Laudenbach) and the visibly nervous Christophe (Olivier Rabourdin), they might have responded differently. They didn’t join the order to be martyred.
Stay or leave? Return to France or transfer to a safer mission? The local authorities, who see the monastery as a remnant of French colonialism, want the monks gone. Each man should decide according to his conscience, instructs Christian. “Our mission here it to be brothers to all.”
The decision-making process is at the heart of this miraculous drama, drawn loosely from an investigation into what befell the monks of Tibhirine. You wouldn’t think this would be the stuff of nail-biting suspense, but it is because Beauvois takes his time and allows the material to find its own rhythm. More than anything, we come away remembering the monks’ frightened-to-serene faces . . . and the sublime music, which includes monastic hymns and Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.” The latter plays over Beauvois version of The Last Supper. It’s a heart-piercing moment, one of many in a singular drama that proffers hope but no pat answers.
OF GODS AND MEN ✮✮✮✮ With Lambert Wilson, Michael Lonsdale, Olivier Rabourdin. Directed by Xavier Beauvois; scripted by Etienne Comar. 120 min. PG-13 (adult theme, some violence)