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Of Gods and Men

Michael Lonsdale and Jacques Herlin in Of Gods and Men.

Of Faith and Fraternity

Of Gods and Men

This week, the first arrests were made under France’s new law banning Muslim women from appearing in public wearing the face-concealing niqab called for by strict religious fundamentalists. The law, pushed by the rightist, newly nationalist government of President Nicolas Sarkozy, is another chapter in France’s long, conflictual relationship with North Africa, where many of the French Muslims came from.

In a small, indirect sense, Xavier Beauvois’ quietly intense and powerful film, Of Gods and Men, is part of the painful, disputed legacy of France’s colonial control of Algeria until 1961. Inspired by actual events, the film is less a scrupulous recreation than an earnest examination of something more personal, profound, and elusive.

In 1996, a small group of Cistercian Trappist monks in a monastery in Algeria’s Atlas mountains became unwillingly embroiled in a savage war between the Algerian government and Islamist-zealot rebels. The monastery had been in a hillside village for well over a century and was an accepted part of the villagers’ daily lives. They came to its medical clinic and were employed in odd jobs. There, the worldly wise Brother Luc (Michael Lonsdale) dispenses medications, old clothes, and in one instance provides counsel on matters of the heart to a young woman pondering a marriage proposal. The brothers are invited to local families’ religious celebrations. “You are the branch, we are the birds,” a worried woman tells Christian (Lambert Wilson), the elected prior of the monastery.

She’s responding to his acknowledgement that the brothers may have to abandon the area because of the increasingly dangerous political situation caused by the xenophobic, violent Islamists. They have already murdered Croatian immigrant workers in their campaign to rid the land of foreigners, and the villagers have learned of a girl who was killed for not wearing the niqab. The film makes obvious a poignant irony: Christian’s respectful understanding of the Islamic faith is contrasted with the zealots’ puristic intolerance.

Another, real-life irony Of Gods and Men doesn’t include is that the actual Christian de Cherge came from an influential French military family and had himself served as an army officer during the dirty, eight-year-long war against Algerian independence fighters almost thirty-five years before. The film’s character is clearly a very different person than that young man and motivated by ecumenicist impulses. He’s familiar with the Koran; and he and his brothers don’t seem to engage in any evangelistic efforts among their Algerian neighbors.

But all too soon, they find themselves not only imperiled by Islamist insurgents, but the object of suspicion by the authorities over their relations with the rebels. Luc has treated one of their wounded, as matter-of-course charity, but this is unacceptable to the Algerian authorities. In a meeting, an interior ministry official blames the former French colonial administration for the troubles and urges the brothers to leave. In one uncharacteristically sharp remark, Christian tells the monks he rejects military protection by a “corrupt government.” This has obvious current resonance, but Beauvois, who co-wrote the film, isn’t really interested in the political dynamics or relevance. He’s concerned with the development and endurance of faith in the face of severe, even dire challenges.

In Of Gods and Men, faith is portrayed as having a fundamentally ethical, personally constitutive nature. When the monks deliberate together about whether to stay or go, Beauvois portrays this struggle as being individual as well as collective. These Trappists are bent on martyrdom. Most have a grasp of the exigent realities, and they’re subject to doubt and fear. There is something stubborn in their refusal to bend or flee. In one scene of striking juxtaposition, the men stand shoulder to shoulder chanting in the chapel, almost huddling, as government helicopters fly slowly over them, surveilling the monastery for the suspected presence of rebels.

Beauvois and his film proceed deliberately and calmly through this increasingly ominous situation. The one depiction of brutal violence seems out of synch despite the very serious tenor of the material. That the monastery’s place in this community is more rooted and organic than the insurgents’ is implied in Beauvois’ handsome treatment of the natural setting, in his broad, softly lit shots of the landscape, and long slow pans across it.

Of Gods and Men was grand prize winner at the Cannes Festival and the French entry in the Acadmey Awards foreign language film competition, where it was snubbed by Academy voters. The film is sometimes so focused on personal and spiritual crises that it loses some of its narrative coherence in a kind of contemplative obscurity. Details are ignored and some meanings murky. But the director and his uniformly excellent cast make this story hauntingly, disturbingly effective. In its depiction of intersecting social and spiritual crises, Of Gods and Men also depicts a small historical tragedy.

Watch the trailer for Of Gods and Men

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