Dir. Xavier Beauvois
(2011, PG-13, 122 min)
Of Gods and Men is about men of faith, but it’s really about doubt, which is what gives the film its emotional power. It tells the true story of an order of Trappist monks who served a village in the mountains of Algeria before being taken hostage and executed by Islamic fundamentalists in the mid-1990s. They sacrificed their lives for their beliefs, but director and co-writer Xavier Beauvois doesn’t approach them as sainted martyrs. He is more interested in their humanity, their struggle to reconcile their firmly held beliefs with their hard-wired survival instincts. They don’t want to die in vain and could easily return home to France, where they will be safe, but can they consider themselves true men of faith if they run away at the time of greatest need? It is not simply a matter of the will of God, but of personal honor. If they stay, they may die. If they leave, their lives are meaningless.
Beauvois begins by establishing the routines of the monastery: prayer, farming, administering to the community’s sick and poor. His subtle style – simple camerawork of static shots and steady pans, and no musical score – evokes the tranquility of daily life and the natural beauty of the landscape. He maintains this understated storytelling even as danger begins to encroach, emphasizing not suspense but his characters’ inner crises. Consider Christophe (Olivier Rabourdin), who in one scene begs for guidance from God while his brothers listen to his plea from neighboring rooms, their own fears echoed by his; later comes a beautiful shot where he bows his head in prayer as beams of light pour in through a window in the background – a heavenly image, yet sad, because God is silent to him. Christophe, at first, is the most vocal about leaving the monastery, but this reflects neither cowardice nor faithlessness. Rather, he is a desperate man seeking guidance, and he, like the others, finds that he can answer only to his conscience.
This is one of the better films I’ve seen on the subject of faith because of its contemplative, humane approach and rich imagery, and because its characters do not set out to be heroes. They are simply human beings who extend their compassion to other human beings, and in trying to do the right thing they make the decision they can live with. That’s as much as you can ask of anyone, no matter what god they serve, if any. Late in the film, a montage of static shots of the monastery under a blanket of snow, accompanied by the narration of the monks’ elected leader, Christian (Lambert Wilson), resonates with a deep sense of loss, and the very last image, still and quiet as all the rest, will stay with you.