Faith in the resonant powers of filmmaking is what drives Xavier Beauvois’ “Of Gods and Men.” Based on an actual incident in which seven French monks were allegedly executed by Islamists during the Algerian Civil War, the pic eschews the hostage-crisis scenario to concentrate on the weeks leading up to their deaths, transforming what could have been an ordinary docudrama into a transfixing meditation on religious conviction, post-colonial strife and the force of actors who elevate every gesture to a loftier domain. This consummate work by the “Le petit lieutenant” helmer will convert serious moviegoers to its cause.
The 1996 event took place in and around a Trappist monastery located in the pastoral highlands 90 kilometers south of Algiers, and bordering a village the film depicts as a source of benevolent pride for the monks, who provide free medical care and assistance with bureaucratic chores and take part in local Muslim traditions.
Rather than depicting a land ravaged by a decade-long conflict that pitted the Algerian government against various radical Islamic groups, the scenario (written by Beauvois and producer Etienne Comar) begins by delicately plunging us into the bucolic life of the monastery, headed by Christian (Lambert Wilson), a scholar who can quote both the Bible and the Koran at will, and whose tragically assertive beliefs are part of what drives the brothers to their doom.
The daily routines of eating, farming, reciting liturgy and singing a series of mesmerizing Gregorian chants are depicted with realistic fidelity, creating a concentrated, almost mystical atmosphere that, as the war nears, serves as a force of spiritual resistance against threats posed by the Islamists (who demand medical supplies and attention), as well as the army (who demand that they accept protection, which Christian adamantly refuses).
As the film patiently (perhaps too much so for some) heads toward its foregone conclusion, Beauvois gradually raises his style to a level of baroqueness reminiscent of 1995’s “Don’t Forget You’re Going to Die,” reaching a crescendo when the brothers stand and sing together as a helicopter hovers over the monastery, as if the very resonance of their voices would be enough to drive the terror away.
In another bravura scene set on the eve of their kidnapping, the monks indulge in a few bottles of wine while Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” plays on a radio, their faces captured by talented d.p. Caroline Champetier (a regular collaborator) in increasingly tight frames that evoke Renaissance portraits and, literally speaking, Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.”
While Christian initially faces some reluctance from his colleagues, their attachment to God, the land and each other ultimately keeps them from fleeing. By showing that these Catholics are as persuaded as their Muslim captors, Beauvois presents religion as a deeply personal affair that can bring believers to a higher state of consciousness, or else send them the wrong message. He also hints at the monks’ troubled ties to the Algerian authorities, who still look upon them as colonists and offer protection only out of obligation (recent testimony has asserted that the monks were in fact killed by military error and not by the kidnappers).
In a pic that’s mostly performance-driven, the cast is subtly but incredibly effective, with Wilson (known Stateside for his roles in “The Matrix” sequels) leading the pack as a smart and stubborn leader who believes that an ultimate good will prevail, even if it’s after his death.
As the asthmatic and sensitive Luc, the highly engaging Michael Lonsdale (“Munich”) offers up many pleasurable moments.
Although press notes indicate the English-language title as “Of Gods and Men,” the subtitles on the print read “Of Men and Gods.”