Co-writer and director Xavier Beauvois explores the question of human brotherhood in crisis
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
In an impoverished Algerian community, a small group of Trappist monks, led by Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson), stare into the face of fundamentalist terror and begin to question both their mission and their faith. In the hands of Frenchman Xavier Beauvois (2005’s Le petit lieutenant), the audience wanders into the countryside and its tense imbalance without much in the way of forewarning. The history and the sides, in terms of the film’s politics, are the subject of another story. Here, the purpose is to walk beside these men of God as they walk, live, and celebrate life with the men and women of this community, be they Christian or Muslim, civilians or soldiers.
Befitting a film with such lofty aims, Of Gods and Men, through its cinematography aspires to immerse the viewer in the quiet wonder of nature and the natural communion of Man in this environment. There are frames of such pure beauty they compare to the work of Terrence Malick (Days of Heaven, The New World) and his ability to capture the primal spirit of the land. But in this case, the camera approximates the feel of the eye and its less than perfect perceptions, which grounds these scenes in something more complex, more human, the very essence the monks struggle with as the tension begins to heighten.
There are threats. Terrorists brutally attack another community of ethnic outsiders working in the region. They kill mercilessly. In the attack there is a message; one the monks hear loud and clear. The military attempts to convince the brothers to either leave or allow soldiers to stand guard inside their community.
But the brothers see themselves no better than anyone else in the community, and don’t understand why they should submit to having weapons in their midst or flee when they are doing the work of God, ministering to the people. The monks offer medical assistance to those in need, work the land and provide supplemental prayers and advice to petitioners of all orthodoxies.
At the heart of all this is the reality that these monks are men. Questions and doubts arise in the face of looming evil and fear, attacking the souls of nature and men and the fragile communion between God and Man. The monks gather for communal prayers, meals, and meetings and each of them must choose for himself whether to stay or go, and on a deeper level, confront their own reasons behind their choice.
Early on, before the situation escalates, one of the monks says, “Islam and its people are a body and a soul.” Beauvois extends that statement beyond Islam to everyone, regardless of faith. Everyone is “a body and a soul” and it is this belief that makes the film so challenging to a post -9/11 audience. We see these monks struggling with the questions and doubts, which we know, for them, will become issues of life and death. We watch them embrace life and the eternal struggle with inevitable death and we want to retreat from them as they guide us down a path towards fullness and truthfulness of humanity. We are not ready for such brotherhood, but the monks show us they may not be either. It comes whether we are ready or not.
Of Gods and Men works as a testament largely because the cast has no readily recognizeable faces (aside from Wilson who appeared in the last two Matrix films). They dedicate themselves completely to the mission of their characters that the film approaches documentary, with reality based in emotion and faith rather than hard truth.
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at email@example.com.