We have our martyrs and they have theirs. The eight gentle Trappist monks depicted in Of Gods and Men uphold the faith that brought them from France to Algeria, only to be abducted and massacred, presumably by fanatics of a rival religious persuasion.
Winner of the Grand Prix last year at Cannes and based on a 1996 event that continues to resonate in France, Of Gods and Men has proved a considerable crowd pleaser on its home turf — topping the French box office charts for three weeks last September and grossing upward of $23 million while inspiring critics with its Christian values, as well as the nobility of its response to both terror and, more generally, "the Islamist surge."
The movie opens on a festive note, with a bit of the 81st Psalm ("Sing aloud to God our strength") and a panoramic view of the Algerian (actually Moroccan) hills. Perched just outside an impoverished-looking Arab village, the monastery is also a clinic, where the locals line up each morning for medical attention. The monks are well integrated into the community; they are seen attending a neighborhood celebration and partaking in the Muslim service (which is notably tolerant of other religions).
All are kindly, even lovable, souls, but only two have much depth. The abbot (Lambert Wilson) is an Arabic scholar who can be heard to murmur insha'Allah and dares to quote from the Koran to the rebel fundamentalists of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA). The doctor (Michael Lonsdale, stooped and swaddled) dispenses not only meds but also romantic advice. Save for Jacques Herlin's wizened cutie-pie, the rest are less differentiated than the Seven Dwarfs. Uniformly pious, they give glory to God in solemnly symmetrical shots of group prayers and unison singing, cultivate their garden, and raise honeybees. Life is idyllic until a terrorist attack on some Croatian workers makes it evident that staying there, as the abbot says, "is as mad as being a monk."
The authorities ask them to leave; the villagers want them to remain. After much prayer and discussion, the brothers decide to stay, perhaps under sentence of death, refusing military protection even after the GIA pays a Christmas Eve visit. Given that the Algerian army is less sympathetic to the monks than are the terrorists, it would seem that Beauvois subscribes to, but never actually advances, a view that emerged long after the event: namely that the monks were collateral damage in an army air raid on a GIA camp.
Contemplative as it means to be, Of Gods and Men is not without generic excitement. Beauvois has characterized it as a "couscous Western." (Unfortunately, the big scene — a beatific last supper — is set to the climax of Swan Lake and is thus unavoidably hijacked by the passion of Natalie Portman.) The story resembles that of Claire Denis's White Material, in which a family of European coffee planters has their existence jeopardized by a chaotic African civil war. Beauvois's film is cool while Denis's is hot — but the main difference is that where White Material is knowingly postcolonial, Of Gods and Men aspires to the timeless.
Writing on its French reception, New York Times reporter Steven Erlanger unsentimentally noted the movie seemed "strangely ignorant of the colonial implantation that the monastery represents." Beauvois has no sense of the monks' otherness or the notion that while the brothers enjoy their piece of heaven, those around them might be suffering in hell.