Movie review by Greg Carlson
The most memorable scene in Xavier Beauvois’s “Of Gods and Men,” a symbolic “Last Supper” during which a group of doomed monks sips wine and listens to “Swan Lake” as tears well in their eyes, is representative of the polarizing qualities of the movie. The painfully earnest tableau, as protracted as the numerous depictions of quotidian existence inside the monastery, will strike some as an audacious emotional crescendo and others as a laughable explosion of bathos. Filmmaker Beauvois clearly makes no apologies for his unsubtle approach, but “Of Gods and Men” could use a lighter touch, particularly when it comes to the weighty matter of exploring questions of good and evil.
A fictionalized account loosely based on the 1996 murder of seven Trappist monks from the monastery of Tibhirine in Algeria, “Of Gods and Men” focuses less on the historical details of the event – and its subsequent political controversy – than it does on the devoted daily chores and ministrations of the monks. Assuming a relentlessly one-sided point of view, Beauvois focuses entirely on the stubborn and dedicated constancy of the Catholic brotherhood without providing more than a tiny sliver of identification with the violent rebels (presumably meant to represent the Armed Islamic Group). Only a brief Christmas confrontation, during which the Muslim militiamen demand supplies from the monks and are refused, suggests reluctant mutual respect and understanding between the prior and the Islamist ringleader.
The Muslims in the film are nearly without exception divided into two categories: bloodthirsty, anti-government warmongers who terrorize the friars and socially moderate, impoverished villagers who rely on the Cistercians for medical care. Beauvois includes glimpses of representatives of the Algerian government, but the movie retreats from any civic or legislative lessons regarding the failures of French colonialism. Despite offers of protection, the monks refuse any help from the armed forces on religious grounds, revealing a conundrum that exposes the precariousness of their long-term presence in a violently contested Islamic realm.
Beauvois attempts to seed some internal conflict from the question of whether the monks will leave the monastery for the sake of personal safety, and at least two scenes are assigned to deliberations in which each padre speaks on behalf of either staying of going. In a film prone to interludes of windy sermonizing, the considered arguments and subsequent votes of the brotherhood momentarily furnish the viewer with tangible, human familiarity instead of impossible saintliness. Even though we know the decision and its outcome, the palpable fear of several of the monks intensifies the drama.
Lambert Wilson, as the leader of the monks, and Michael Lonsdale, as the monastery’s ailing medic, are the only two group members privileged with detailed individuation, although the wizened Amedee, played by Jacques Herlin, looks as though he stepped out of a Renaissance painting. The remaining members of the fraternity disappointingly blend together for much of the film, and some viewers will long for greater personalization. As a tale of martyrdom, “Of Gods and Men” won’t likely change many minds, no matter how one interprets Pascal’s thought (quoted in the film by Lonsdale’s Brother Luc) that “men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it for religious conviction.”