Xavier Beauvois’s stark religious drama Of Gods and Men is loosely based on the true story of French monks who, in the nineties, elected to remain in their monastery in a rural Algerian village despite threats from an increasingly homicidal band of Islamic fundamentalists. For some, the decision to stay or leave would be a no-brainer: Au revoir, les Algeriens. It’s a testament to the movie’s power that even we of little faith come to respect the process by which the brothers arrive at their destiny. We might not agree with it, we might not like it, we might even think they’re nuts, but we don’t feel entitled to argue with men who think and feel so deeply.
It’s important to say that these monks, as Beauvois depicts them, are not agents of a colonialist power or proselytizers bent on bringing Christ’s word to the uncivilized. They are there, simply, to do good works: to promote literacy, to provide medical aid, to feed the hungry. We’re not told what exactly they make of the locals’ Muslim faith, only that they have accommodated themselves to it. The abbot, who’s called Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson), studies the Koran to the point where he can actually remonstrate with a threatening Islamic fundamentalist. He says good-bye to a village friend with “Insha-allah,” meaning, in Arabic, “God be with you.” He attends the Muslim equivalent of a christening and doesn’t flinch at prayers asking Allah for “help against the people of the unbelievers.” The gentlest old monk, also a physician, is played with tenderness by Michel Lonsdale. In one scene, he counsels a young Algerian woman on earthly love. Was he, she asks, ever in love? Many times, he says. But then he discovered a Higher Love. And because of his gravity, we don’t snicker.
Despite all the praying and chanting, Of Gods and Men is by design rather plain — and monotonous. Basically, we’re hanging out with the brothers waiting for the bad guys to show up and start punishing them for their faith. The only relief from the monks praying in silence or tilling the fields are sudden, graphic killings of foreigners and non-fundamentalists carried out by the local Mujahadeen. The country’s military officials strongly urge the monks to flee, but Brother Christian quietly refuses. He does not even accept the offer of armed guards at night: He says he’ll lock the door. Wilson, who often plays a heartthrob, is at first hard to read in this nonemotive role. His intransigence made me think of the joke about the man caught in a flood who shakes of a series of would-be rescuers, telling them God will save him — then, after he drowns, and queries God, hears, “I sent two boats and a helicopter, what the hell else did you want me to do?”
But their debates are unexpectedly gripping. One monk says he didn’t join the order to have his throat slit. Understandable. Another asks whether martyrdom will truly serve a higher purpose. Good question. But Brother Christian is adamant that the village needs them, and that, “The good shepherd doesn’t abandon his flock for the wolves.” Gradually, over several days, his words sink in. After the final vote is taken, Beauvois serves up a tour-de-force: His camera holds on each man alone with his thoughts, and even though they’re listening to the now-overfamiliar overture from Swan Lake, the faces are so moving you can nudge out of your mind the vision of Natalie Portman swooning into a puddle of bloody feathers.
I don’t quite understand why someone translated the title, Des Hommes et de Dieux — literally, Of Men and Gods — to Of Gods and Men. The film is about men, about the human perception of the Almighty that exists even in the absence of a sign from God — or, for that matter, in the absence of God Him/Herself. Faith, the film implies, is hard won, and the battle to discern God’s will never ends. The Islamic extremists think they’re following God’s will, too. But Christian love prevails.
True, some of the monks are not ready for martyrdom and tremble in fear. But who could not envy Lonsdale’s brother when he says, simply, “I’m not scared of death. I’m a free man"?