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It's like a classical western, a colleague said to me, pitching Of Gods and Men, and initially the comparison caught me off-guard. After all, the film is the true-life story of a group of French monks in Algeria in the 1990s, who have to decide whether to stay or go in the face of rising extremist violence. It's somber, not particularly talkative, and very preoccupied with the tensions of the new millennium; John Ford and Howard Hawks didn't seem the most immediate benchmarks. But then, if you look closely at the classical westerns of Ford and Hawks (before the genre was rewritten by the stylish nihilism of Leone and Peckinpah), you can see that they were not simply defined by cowboys, gunfights, homesteading, and the American frontier. They were also about insular communities at the edge of the modern world, and how the harmony of these communities is challenged or maintained with the arrival of outsiders. Perhaps it's not such a counter-intuitive comparison after all. Because Of Gods and Men is very much about community and harmony—and the forces that could shatter it.
The latest film by the French actor-turned-director Xavier Beauvois, Of Gods and Men won the Grand Prix at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, and may be Beauvois' most accomplished work to date. His previous film, The Young Lieutenant (2005), was an ace police drama that fit neatly into the rules of the genre, but also showed something more: an eye for how to build characters from little details and quiet moments; a decidedly progressive interest in the issues of the day, namely France becoming a more heterogeneous society; and a measured refusal to add stylistic flourishes (or even a musical score) when the performers and locations can speak for themselves. In Of Gods and Men, these aspects are moved to the foreground.
And so, as it begins, Of Gods and Men is very concerned with establishing the way of life in the Algerian monastery. The elderly monks pray and study. They run a clinic for the locals. They offer advice to an old woman whose son has moved to France. They respectfully attend Islamic ceremonies, not looking for converts, but as men of faith interested in the faiths of others. It is a tableau of tranquility and routine, which will soon come under fire as a group of radical fundamentalists traces a warpath through the area. Thus, after images of gardens and chapels comes the image of an innocent man getting his throat slit—presented just as plainly, and breaking the calm. As the monks decide whether or not to flee to safety, the film's perspective settles primarily on Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson), the leader, whose otherwise calm exterior is belied by signs of worry. It is a film of faces more than words, and indeed, the most explicit character arc can be seen in Lambert Wilson's composure, and how it threatens to crack.
Strange to say, then, that Of Gods and Men is not a particularly spiritual film—at least not in the way we think of when we look at the films of Robert Bresson or Carl Theodor Dreyer. These were directors who could take stories about prisoners or vampires and turn them into parables of divine presence and absence; here, such existential crises are viewed primarily from the outside. The film is more concerned with the materiality of the world as we have it: a world beautiful enough to be filmed in CinemaScope and blessed by the compassion of the monks, the townsfolk, and even the leader of the extremists, but a troubled, complicated world nonetheless. Not for nothing does the film build to a climactic speech about the divine manifesting itself in humanity. "Of Gods and Men" may make for a punchier title in English, but it's worth noting that in the original French, men are listed first.
Accordingly, there is a key scene at the exact midpoint of the film, when Brother Christian meets with a local official who sympathetically warns him to leave. In assigning responsibility for the wave of terror, the official points to French colonialism—"that organized plundering"—and the legacy of tension and desperation it left behind. Their own country's role in the cycle of violence is something that the monks do not discuss and may wish to ignore, but the look on Lambert Wilson's face shows that he cannot deny it.
The film's final message of pluralism and empathy is forceful and direct, but the narrative also contains subtler ironies and troubling questions—about martyrdom, complicity, and unintended consequences—that it knows better than to try to answer. In the end, Of Gods and Men is a film about how you cannot live outside of history or pass through it unaffected. But it is not angry or incendiary. It is not a polemic, or a call to action. Nor is it fatalistic or resigned. It is simply, sadly, quietly observant, a film of understanding, with room for hope. In the final shot, after the story arrives at an ending that no one could doubt, all the characters have left the frame, and we're left with an image that's silent, serene, and so whited-out as to be almost blank. In the long run, harmony reasserts itself.