A sublime look into the hearts and minds of tormented monks, Xavier Beauvois’ Of Gods And Men reveals the battle between humanity and divinity in all of us.
The Missionary Position by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers.
Despite Des Hommes Et Des Dieux receiving the Grand Prix at Cannes this year and representing France at next year’s 83rd Academy Awards, those living on this side of the Channel could be forgiven for having missed Xavier Beauvois’ slow rise to mastery. Both actor and director (Beauvois recently appeared alongside Isabelle Huppert in Villa Amalia) Of Gods And Men is the autodidact’s fifth film and only his second to be released in the UK, following N‘oublie Pas Que Tu Vas Mourir in 1995. But still, Of Gods And Men with its monasterial spareness and Catholic ritual seems heavenly worlds apart from the relationship dramas of his previous films. He’s got an eye for community to be sure, a predilection which, with his talent for exposing the conflicting facets of man, really comes to the fore in Of Gods And Men. With religious simplicity.
Based on a true story, Xavier Beauvois’ Des Hommes Et Des Dieux recounts the story of eight Trappist monks living in the Monastère de l’Atlas in Algeria, beheaded in 1996 by Muslim extremists. Their monastery in the Atlas Mountains is a little haven of peace, as each monk devotes himself to a personal ritual of medicine, cooking, gardening, reading and prayer. It’s a daily rhythm of work and devotion punctuated by chanted masses in an impoverished chapel, musical interludes which cast a mystical cadence over the film’s otherwise sedate tempo. It’s a sublime routine, a life of elegant simplicity dedicated to God and salvation. But when an imam and two Croat builders are murdered nearby, the Tibhirine monks are put on the alert and have to decide between staying with their flock and flying the coop.
And it’s an excruciatingly complex quandary. Brother Christian, sensitively embodied by Lambert Wilson, is a theologian who relies on Pascal’s Pensées or the Koran as much as the Bible in shepherding his congregation. And like the other brothers in the Monastère de l’Atlas, it’s a religious openness that has succeeded in putting the monks at the heart of this Muslim community. They’re reliant on Frère Luc, a weak, octogenarian doctor for medical treatment, but when he’s brought a wounded terrorist to treat, he tends to him as keenly as he does the locals, another symbol of their apolitical, altruistic philosophy. But Frère Christian refuses military protection, seeking to avoid siding with corrupt government forces or to distance the monastery from the locals. But it’s a move that puts him at odds with the other brothers, a unilateral decision that seeds dissent. And as the brothers choose whether or not to flee their mountaintop, they’re reminded of just how vital they are to the community, the only stable branch for these volatile birds.
It’s a dilemma between god and man, between their holy vocation and their basic human desire to survive. They don’t want to die a pointless death, throats slit by terrorists. They want to continue to serve God in peace. But as men of God, have they not already given themselves to Him to spread the Word as He pleases? Who are they to forsake their flock when they need them most? Finding an unexpected connection with extremist leader Fatiyissa, respectful of each other as men of faith, Frère Christian manages to gain for them a stay of execution. But it’s a prolonged and agonising decision as a rain-drenched Father Christian appeals to God in nature for advice, from a rugous tree or an inscrutably grey lake. Finally, after a few all-too-human hesitations the monks decide to stay; some too old to leave, others eager not to separate their destinies.
And into the valley of death they go.
It’s at this point that Of Gods And Men really soars. Its heartbreaking solidarity is awe-inspiring; the monks holding each other, singing hymns as a Government helicopter flies over, unwillingly co-opted into a fate now sealed. Or Caroline Champetier’s stunning cinematography, an almost hyperreal series of close-ups on desperate faces, as the men feast on a last supper of secular music and red wine imported by a returning Frère Bruno. Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake chiming out their swansong. Ever fearful of a now inevitable death, the monks are awoken that night. And although Father Amédée manages to escape by hiding under his bed, seven monks are abducted to a foggy and unuttered fate, its conclusion only grimly revealed in sombre end titles.
With enchantingly understated performances by some of French cinema’s retired stars, including Michael Lonsdale, Philippe Laudenbach and Jacques Herlin, Of Gods And Men is a profoundly moving slowburn. It’s a sensitive testimony to the tragedy of the Tibhirine monks, but also a sublime homage to their courage and determination. And as the very essence of their faith is only revealed in doubt, Beauvois reveals the transcendental in their struggle, a sublime humanity he challenges us to live up to. Whether we can raise that gauntlet is of course a very personal matter, but Of Gods And Men is haunting enough not to let us forget it.
Of Gods And Men is released in the UK on 3rd December 2010