Serious, serene, and sneakily affecting, Of Gods and Men is a story of ordinary men whose compassion is tested in the fiercest fashion; a riveting meditation on religious conviction and post-colonial strife; and a transcendent drama of uplift and inspiration that reveals the cavernous divide between heaven and earth. It is a quiet film more electrifying than a dozen action movies.
Loosely based on the Cistercian monks of Tibhirine who lived in Algeria from 1993 to 1996, Of Gods and Men follows Christian, Luc, and six others who are placed in danger after a crew of foreign workers is massacred by an Islamic fundamentalist group. Despite the growing menace and the offer of protection from the army, the monks refuse to leave.
At first, one may see a passel of deluded and naive fanatics. Yet the actors elevate every gesture to a loftier domain, and infuse their utterances with bottomless grace and humility. The only options available to the monks are to flee to France and abandon everything they stand for – service, humility, the confraternity of Christianity and Islam – or to stay behind, care for their beehives and gardens, and stand with the people of Algeria to whom they have already given their lives. By the time the film is over, the decision to stay and face their fate is the natural and inevitable consequence of their convictions.
The radicalism of the monks is an expression of religious zeal whose extremism lies in its insistence on preserving peace and dignity in all circumstances. Though writer-director Xavier Beauvois’ sympathy for the Trappists is evident, he does not treat them as saints or as mouthpieces for any particular theology. Rather, Of Gods and Men balances the two terms of its title and treats the relationship between them as a grave and complex mystery.
Supple and suspenseful, somber and suffused with tenderness, Of Gods and Men is appropriately austere without being overly harsh, and without foregoing the customary pleasures of cinema. The narrative gathers momentum as it progresses, and the camera is alive to the allure of the Algerian countryside. It is thoughtful, grave, elegantly made, and rigorously intelligent. The way it dramatizes anxieties, expressed and unexpressed, is absorbing and discreetly provocative.
Beyond the monks’ chanted prayers, the only time recorded music is heard comes during a meal, when the residents of the abbey listen to a famous passage from Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” and lose themselves as completely in aesthetic reverie as they otherwise do in spiritual devotion. It serves as a reminder that even in wartime, and even in lives governed by restraint and self-denial, there is a need for beauty and for art.
At a moment when the world’s attention is intensely focused on the internal divisions of the Arab world, Of Gods and Men – a moving, abstract parable and an unfeigned episode drawn from recent history – is most salient and strikingly important because it is imbued with a rare kind of wisdom. Akin to Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc and Robert Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar, it is a deeply-felt, powerful film about religious belief that has no interest in peddling the gospel to the viewer.
Of Gods and Men takes the stance that how a person of faith lives matters more than the circumstances of his or her death. The climax is both misty and unforgettable: a sacrifice that looks like a ghost story. It made me glum and proud to belong to a species capable of such cruelty and such kindness, possessed of the power to choose to love those who hate us, and to die with peace in our hearts as the world burns down. Be prepared to be shaken.