Nominated for 11 César Awards, including Best Picture, the extraordinarily moving Of Gods and Men tells the story of eight French Christian monks who live in harmony with their Muslim brothers in a monastery perched in the mountains of North Africa. When a crew of foreign workers is massacred by an Islamic fundamentalist group, fear sweeps though the region. The army offers them protection, but the monks refuse. Despite the growing menace in their midst, they slowly realize that they have no choice but to stay…come what may. This historical drama is loosely based on the life of the Cistercian monks of Tibhirine in Algeria in the mid-1990s. Winner of the Best Foreign Language Film award from the National Board of Review.
Drama. Starring Lambert Wilson, Michael Lonsdale and Olivier Rabourdin. Directed by Xavier Beauvois. In French with English subtitles. (PG-13. 122 minutes. At Bay Area theaters.)
Xavier Beauvois has made a deeply thought-out film in “Of Gods and Men,” based on the true story of nine Roman Catholic monks whose lives of peace, contemplation and service were disrupted by an outbreak of Islamic fundamentalist violence near their monastery in Algeria. Beauvois begins the film by showing us monastic life with specificity and detail. The monks offer free clothing and medical service. They make and sell honey, and spend a good deal of every day in private study and group prayer.
Then they hear of insane incidents of slaughter, of a young woman murdered for not wearing a veil, of foreign construction workers whose throats were cut on a building site. And they have to decide whether to flee, or to stay, or to do something in between – to relocate to a safer part of the country, or to have some monks leave and some remain. Much of the film involves the monks’ agonized rumination over these questions and about what role men of faith should play in such a crisis. Part of the film’s success comes from the fact that the notion of staying, despite the threats, begins to make logical sense even to a relatively secular movie audience full of people thinking, “Get out of there!” for two hours straight.
The film is long – longer than would have been optimal, as it is, inevitably, slow moving. But there is much to savor in Beauvois’ meticulous work. Notice, for example, how, in his crowd scenes, not only does everyone have something to do but each person also has a compelling state of mind. Everyone is thinking. Notice the positioning of bodies within the frame, suggestive of classic painting. Notice the compositions, the backgrounds, the shrewd placement of each shot. Notice, also, how scenes end abruptly, but at precisely the moment their mood or information is conveyed. This is a beautiful film, full of gray- and white-haired men who grow in stature before our eyes. The scene in which the men drink wine and listen to “Swan Lake” is one of the year’s great set pieces, a moment that will stay with you, perhaps forever.
Indeed, this is probably the best long, slow, depressing movie about monks you’ll ever get a chance to see. Consider this both a warning and a recommendation not to pass this up.