Film review: Of Gods and Men (Des hommes et des dieux)

Because the French regarded Algeria not as a colony, but an integral part of France itself, the war for independence was especially bitter and bloody —  more than half a million casualties in 1954-62. Freed of European rule, Algerians turned on one another; in 1991-2002, more than 150,000 lives were lost in violence between the country’s military regime and Islamic guerrillas. Seven of those lives belonged to Cistercians who, in March, 1996, were abducted from their monastery in the remote Atlas Mountains. Of Gods and Men dramatizes the final months of their mission in Algeria.

In the opening footage, the monks file down a corridor away from the camera. Repeated at the end, the scene serves as a visual metaphor of their passage from this world. Each has left France for this Christian outpost in North Africa out of dedication to the Benedictine principles of poverty, simplicity, manual labor, and self-sufficiency. The film is a patient record of their daily routines —  communal prayer, Spartan meals, gardening, laundry. Awakening at dawn, the men gather in their modest chapel to sing Gregorian chants, which director Xavier Beauvois, respecting pious lives suspended in Cistercian time and place, films in their entirety in long takes. If one of the functions of cinema is to transport us to another world, Of Gods and Men is as effective as Into Great Silence (2005),  a cinéma vérité immersion in a Carthusian monastery, in lifting us out of a secular movie theater and into sacred space.

The monks operate a clinic for the peasants of Tibhirine, the village that has grown up around the monastery. Luc (Lonsdale), an elderly monk who is also a physician, tends to as many as 150 patients a day. His colleagues gather honey for the local market. The holy men live in apparent harmony with the villagers, conversing with them in Arabic and even attending Muslim festivities. However, this idyllic enclave of French-Algerian, Christian-Muslim comity is threatened when Croatian guest workers and a woman caught in public without a veil are slaughtered by xenophobic Islamists. When a band of guerrillas demands that the monks surrender their stock of medicines, the tiny community faces extinction.

Christian (Wilson), the prior of the monastery, refuses to comply. Speaking softly but forthrightly and quoting the Quran, he so astonishes the intruders by his gentle audacity that they withdraw. Some monks question Christian’s wisdom in placing them at risk through his defiance, but it is now clear that they all remain in danger. A commander of the Algerian army urges a return to France, which he blames for his country’s current woes. Whether the Cistercian enclave is simply an extension of European colonialism or a positive contribution to cross-cultural and inter-religious understanding remains unresolved.

While continuing their daily practices, the monks struggle with their options — leave or stay. At this point, the dilemma resembles the one faced by the Alamo defenders when General Sam Houston commanded them to evacuate and survive to fight another day. Choosing death and glory, hot-headed William Travis ignored the order. Weighing in on their predicament, one monk insists that he did not come to Algeria to commit suicide, while another is reluctant to desert their post. However, they are a community and act through consensus. “We are like birds on a branch,” a Cistercian tells a villager. “We do not know whether to leave.” The villager replies: “The birds are us. The branch is you. If you leave, we won’t know where to perch.”

The most affecting scene occurs on a wintry evening, when, sensing that the end is near, the monks break briefly from their austere routine and share some wine. The camera lingers on each radiant face. On this silent night, holy night, the wine is consumed without a word. From the beginning of the scene to its conclusion, all we hear is a stirring cut from Swan Lake. What is in effect the monks’ Last Supper is both experienced and filmed with consummate grace.

Less interested in documentation than evocation, Beauvois, who filmed within the safer terrain of Morocco, does not portray what happened to the Cistercians after their abduction. They were beheaded, though accusations have surfaced that they died in a botched rescue by the army, which then cut off their heads in order to discredit the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria.

In the English translation of the film’s title, Of Gods and Men reverses the order of the French original — Des hommes et des dieux: Of Men and Gods. Perhaps, unlike the French, who helped invent humanism five centuries ago, American audiences are drawn more to gods than men. Or perhaps the American distributor hoped to echo the 1998 film Gods and Monsters. Whatever the explanation, this superb film surveys the porous boundaries separating men, gods, and monsters.


Of Gods and Men (Des hommes et des dieux)

Dir. Xavier Beauvois; writ. Beauvois and Etienne Comar; feat. Lambert Wilson, Michael Lonsdale, Olivier Rabourdin. (PG-13)

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