Dramatized from a true story of French monks living in Algeria in the 1990s, this movie achieves great power through quiet intensity.
"Of Gods and Men" is a quiet, austere film that is more electrifying than a dozen action movies. It dramatizes the real-life story of eight French monks in Algeria in the mid-1990s, when Islamist fundamentalists were jockeying to overthrow the corrupt national government. The monks went about their business, sharing the life of their rural Muslim village, tending to the sick and practicing their devotions until events made that routine impossible. To say more would jeopardize the tension director Xavier Beauvois builds with architectural precision.
The film begins as an intimate portrait of the Trappists, observing their postcard-perfect corner of the Atlas mountains, their chores, studies and ascetic lifestyle in engrossing detail. There isn't much dialogue. Outside their communal meals and meetings where the men discuss the monastery's affairs, they express their feelings through sacred music.
The characters are sketched with deft, minimal strokes. Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson) is the elected prior of the monastery, a scholar of the Qur'an and the monks' grave ambassador to the world of soldiers and politicians. Brother Luc (Michael Lonsdale) is the group's physician, a benign, tired old sheepdog of a man who treats sick children and wounded rebels alike, judging no one whom God puts in his path. He is the heart to Brother Christian's mind, the one a teenage girl can turn to as she experiences her first infatuation. The others are humble, gentle, humanly flawed worker bees. Not one is a plaster saint.
Their lives are put in danger as the civil war rages. Armed rebels arrive on their doorstep demanding treatment for a comrade. Brother Christian, a peacemaker, handles the confrontation diplomatically, but it's clear the monks' devotion and commitment to their mission are now putting their lives at risk. The government wants them to leave. The villagers want them to stay. "We are the birds. You are the branch," says a woman. "If you leave, we lose our footing." The monks debate the proper course of action in quiet, thoughtful exchanges. Flee Algeria and live or remain and almost certainly die? In a scene of stunning power, they reach their accord almost telepathically as they silently share a rare bottle of red wine and listen to the poignant Overture from Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake."
French audiences who know the news story could anticipate the monks' fate; the climax shouldn't be divulged to viewers who are coming to it for the first time. What should be noted is the delicacy with which Beauvois treats his climax, a mist-shrouded march toward an indistinct horizon.
The degree to which 130 years of French colonialism created the conditions imperiling the monks, also familiar to French audiences, isn't explored here beyond a fleeting line of dialogue. That's just as well, really. The film isn't a history lesson, but an examination of the possibility of peace and fraternity in the midst of war. It's an eternal question of moral choice. How these eight men come to define their duty makes "Of Gods and Men" 2011's first indisputably great film.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186