The French film Of Gods and Men may not make movie-goers want to take a vow of chastity and sequester themselves in the African wilderness, but it will certainly compel them to admire the eight French Trappist monks at the center of this thriller set in 1990s Algeria.
The monks live in a modest but beautifully verdant compound high in the Algerian mountains. Their private lives are devoted to prayer, scholarship, and singing. They make honey and farm to sustain themselves. They exist, in some ways, as a world apart. The bearded, no-nonsense doctor Luc (Michael Lonsdale) treats the village women and children, sometimes a hundred a day. The monks and the villagers till the fields together, celebrate joyous Muslim holidays, and share the camaraderie of their neighbors. Their destinies are intertwined. One of the most touching scenes in this meditative, serene film about faith and bravery is of Luc and a young village girl sitting apart from the crowd, sharing a quiet moment as they discuss how she will know when she is truly in love. Luc offers the wisdom of his own experience of love, and you are suddenly aware that he, like all of the monks, has a complex past, one that goes beyond the walls of the monastery where he now lives. The sight of a stooped, gray-haired man far past the age of romance advising a girl in the bloom of youth is deeply touching, an expression of the sense of protectiveness and genuine love the brothers feel for the Arab people they live among.
A winner of the grand prize at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, director Xavier Beauvois' film is not a rousing drama, but instead a story that takes its cue from the restraint of the monks' lives.
Of Gods and Men is a story of multiple communities. There is the community of the villagers that the monks — and the monks who came before them, since the 19th century — are a part of. And there is also the community of the men themselves. The men have established a remarkable intimacy and loving rapport with each other as deep as the bonds between any family. They share everything: meal times, prayer, work. It is not a perfect world; their leader Christian (Lambert Wilson) sometimes makes decisions for the entire group that rankle the men. In times of trouble or discord, they sit together to share their thoughts and deliberate about the right solution. Their world appears to be, in many ways, something of a utopian society.
But outside of their walled compound is a more combative, disturbing world. Algeria has broken out into civil war between the corrupt government and the packs of Islamic rebels who roam the countryside, committing horrible acts of cruelty. They slit the throats of foreign workers and young girls who have dared to leave their home without wearing a veil.
As the violence escalates, the monks are warned to accept the protection of the army. Then the town authorities implore them to flee the country. The monks, however, seem to see staying as not only an expression of their faith, but as an expression of their solidarity with the villagers, who don't have the option of fleeing. The two communities — the abbey and the village — have grown up side by side. For the monks to abandon them in a time of crisis strikes Christian as wrong, and through the persuasive power of his logic and intelligence, the other monks ultimately agree, some with great difficulty.
The men can communicate voicelessly. They comfort each other in this time of enormous stress with their hands placed on each other's shoulders and with warm embraces. In a scene of emotional catharsis, they sit around their dinner table enjoying the rare treat of a glass of wine, listening to Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake." What the scene makes clear is the fact that what the monks have engaged in, over the course of the film, is a radical and disturbing contemplation of their own mortality at the hands of the extremists. In the process, they have learned to savor life all the more. As the camera moves around the table, their faces express a heart-wrenching array of emotions, their feelings coming forth thanks to the music. They experience their sentiments privately, but they express them as a group, as if they were individual instruments coalescing into a tragic but beautiful melody.