French filmmaker Xavier Beauvois’s fifth feature is an observational and philosophical drama, based on true events from 1996, about a group of eight French monks in Algeria's Atlas mountains who face a growing threat of violence from armed Islamic fundamentalists operating in the region.
The film concerns itself with the monks’ deliberations, practical and spiritual, as to whether or not they men should stay in their monastery at this dangerous time, tending to the medical and other needs of the local community, or whether they should return to
France. But Beauvois is equally interested in the rituals and routines of this remote commune, asking why these ageing men choose to live this way and examining the odd sort of communality they achieve by facing up to this unusual challenge.
Beauvois rallies an astounding ensemble cast for this enquiring work, which is strangely serene in mood considering the violence and the threats of violence at its heart. From the off, we know we’re dealing with a nuanced, humane study of religions and the motives and beliefs of their stewards: early on we witness a friendly and serious discussion between the monks and local imams about Islamic fundamentalism and attitudes to Islam. Even when a group of mujahedin appear at the monastery, and not long after we’ve witnessed them slitting the throats of Croatian workers, Beauvois is careful to present them in a balanced, understanding fashion. It’s debate he is after rather than judgement and certainly not any sort of thrill from the threat faced by the monks. This is a film about piety rather than peril.
What sticks in the mind most about ‘Of Gods and Men’ is the journey we witness these eight monks taking from initially disagreeing among themselves as to whether or not to leave the monastery to finally almost unanimously agreeing as to their fate. We come to understand that their beliefs and the succour they take from each other may be more potent than even they first believed, and while Beauvois is in no way suggesting that they are martyrs, he does imply that they have found a spiritual solution to impending death.
That’s not to say their mortal quandary doesn’t scare the hell out of these men, as it would anybody, monks or not. This predicament is made powerfully and movingly clear in a heartrending scene where the monks listen to music from Tchaikovsky’s ‘Swan Lake’ and we witness a series of close-ups of their faces and eyes, the latter invariably filling with tears.