....deliberate, beautiful, and deeply disturbing

Of Gods and Men

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis


            In a lovely, long introduction to Of Gods and Men we follow an old man as he walks slowly through a sparsely populated Algerian village in the snow. We learn that he is Luc (Michael Lonsdale), a monk, a doctor, and a deeply respected adviser to the villagers. Although we didn't know it then, the scene was a signal, or more precisely a warning, of what lay ahead for the Muslim villagers and for the French monks who live in the monastery nearby. The movie is considered, deliberate, beautiful and deeply disturbing.
            Director Xavier Beauvois paints for us the feel of life at the monastery: prayer and chanting and the silent, menial work of washing dishes and bringing in the logs. They also tend beehives and sell their honey in the local market to augment the villagers' lives. They go about their business so quietly that we begin to tense at the sight of the purity of the snow, of the vestments, wondering what lies ahead.
            The monastery and the village live in cooperative harmony in a rare and innocent kind of peace. The only warning we have of impending violence is that the each of the director's quiet scenes ends suddenly while the next begins with thunderous noise - an earth moving machine perhaps, or a blast of music. The warning is realized with the explosive sound of an attack that leaves Croatian workers dead by the roadside, their throats slashed.
            This violent intrusion on a peaceful world throws the village and the monastery into emotional turmoil. Who will leave, who will stay? And within the monastery, each monk wrestles his conscience and his own reading of his duty. They are told to go. If they stay to die for their faith, what is gained besides martyrdom? Is martyrdom enough? What is their obligation to their faith, to the villagers, to themselves as human beings? Lambert Wilson's Christian de Cherge is an intellectual tower of quiet strength.
            Alone and together, they pray as quietly as they did before the violence, but the daily life they once knew is over and the tension of forced decision dominates every moment. Helicopters, noise, prayer, humiliation, martyrdom - all playing slowly out against the bitter cold of the winter snow.
            One could say that this movie is about seven French Catholic monks in an Algerian monastery who are taken by terrorists. But that would miss the point entirely. Most of all, this film is a magical rendering of mood and texture - of walls, streets, landscape, cloth, expressions. There are very few spoken words, and few are needed. Against the stark landscape, the actors stay true to the mood and force the audience into a contemplative place they most probably didn't feel when they came in. And then, quite suddenly, the afterward that so often accompanies a true story stuns the audience with the reality of what unfolded in that peaceful world.



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