The contrast between heartfelt faith and violent extremism is drawn with quiet might in the acclaimed French drama “Of Gods and Men.”
Set in North Africa in the 1990s, the film is loosely based on the lives of the Cistercian monks of Tibhirine, Algeria, who were kidnapped by Islamic terrorists in 1996. In an apparent effort to emphasize the movie’s universality, writer-director Xavier Beauvois keeps the time and place largely concealed. For those unfamiliar with the story, this strategy may leave them confused as the film unfolds.
The drama chronicles the lives of eight French monks dwelling in harmony with the Muslim villagers who reside just outside their humble monastery. The Christians are a beloved and well-established part of the community, providing medical care to the sick, counseling young and old alike and accepting invitations to Islamic rituals. In their discussions with local elders — the movie is in French and Arabic with English subtitles — the monks learn that Islamic fundamentalists have begun wreaking havoc in the region, and it is an ominous sign of what’s to come.
When the armed extremists mercilessly slay a group of Croatian workers, fear seizes the monks and townsfolk alike. It isn’t long before the terrorists darken the door of the monastery, demanding medicine for their injured fighters. Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson), the monks’ elected leader, calmly and firmly stands up to the gunmen.
The threat of violence casts a pall over the once-peaceful place of worship. The monks refuse military protection, as the soldiers’ cruelty is nearly as frightening as the terrorists’ viciousness.
The brothers debate whether they should flee the monastery, which is what the corrupt government wants, or stay and continue to minister to the villagers, even if it means becoming a pawn in the fundamentalists’ deadly mission. Their aged doctor, Brother Luc (Michael Lonsdale) calmly refuses to abandon their flock, while Brother Christophe (Olivier Rabourdin) struggles mightily with his dread of dying. The exploration of that crossroads of faith and fear provides some of the film’s most compelling drama.
Filming on location at a former monastery in Morocco, Beauvois effectively contrasts the austere serenity of the monks’ lives, from their prayers and chants to their gardens and nature walks, with the tumultuous bloodshed favored by the terrorists. He builds the dichotomy and tension with deliberate restraint, but he taxes viewers’ patience by allowing the first half of the story to drag.
Still, “Of Gods and Men” resonates with quiet power, whether it is lingering on the brothers’ faces as they listen to Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” at the dinner table or soaring above the ruggedly beautiful Moroccan countryside.