Film Chronicles Persecution Of Monks In Algeria

Of Gods and Men, a French film set in an Algerian monastery in the 1990s, is loosely based on the story of seven monks who were kidnapped and decapitated in 1996. Actor Lambert Wilson discusses his role in the film.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

"Of Gods and Men" is a French film that's set in a monastery in Algeria in the 1990s. It's loosely based on the story of seven monks who were kidnapped and decapitated in 1996. At the time, Algeria was facing a violent Islamist insurgency.

The nine monks of the movie are caught between the Islamists and the army as they run a clinic for the local Muslim villagers and maintain a routine of prayer and chanting.

(Soundbite of movie, "Of Gods and Men")

Unidentified Group: (Chanting in foreign language)

SIEGEL: Their dilemma is whether to leave Algeria and abandon their mission, or to remain, despite the near certainty that they'll face a violent death. Like the real-life monks whose story inspired the film, they choose to stay.

"Of Gods and Men" has been a surprisingly successful film at the box office in France. And the actor who plays Brother Christian, the prior of the monastery, is a very well-known French movie star, Lambert Wilson, who is better known in this country for playing the Merovingian in "The Matrix" movies and who joins us from New York.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. LAMBERT WILSON (Actor): Thank you.

SIEGEL: And first, the chanting. I gather it became an actual spiritual experience for you and the other actors.

Mr. WILSON: Well, it was the best preparation for the film. In order to become monks, what do you have to do? Monks plow the earth, they cook, they - all things that we know how to do. But what makes them special is the fact that they spend about four hours a day singing and chanting.

So we spent a lot of time preparing for the chanting. And I guess it helped us merge as a group, and it helped us become brothers, in a way.

SIEGEL: Did you or the other members of the cast have a past as altar boys or some connection to this chanting from childhood or no?

Mr. WILSON: Not at all. There's only one man who - Michael Lonsdale, who is a very famous actor who has done a lot of films, including American films - apart from him, the rest of the actors knew absolutely nothing about that sort of preparation.

SIEGEL: As we think not only of European actors but European audiences, French audiences, certainly as being less religious, more secular than American audiences, is it a challenge to create empathy for your character who is remarkably unlike the people who are watching him?

Mr. WILSON: Well, it's odd. In France, people flock to see the film because they had been shocked terribly by what had happened to the monks. And then they came to see the film for another reason, because the film promotes certain values that the audience is very hungry for: altruism, tolerance, love, peace.

SIEGEL: Yes. In the film "Of Gods and Men," the monks tend to regard the Islamists and the Algerian army as morally equivalent. Their response to violence is both pacifist and one might say passive. In light of the contemporary conflicts between radical Islamists and governments, has that attitude of the film, has it inspired much criticism in France?

Mr. WILSON: No. Not at all. Not at all.

SIEGEL: It's been welcomed by French audiences?

Mr. WILSON: It's been welcomed by audiences in France, and they were very varied: Catholics, young people, Muslims. It took us by surprise. It was something that we totally had not expected.

SIEGEL: You thought this would be a small movie while you were making it.

Mr. WILSON: Absolutely. I mean, who - when you pitch a film, and you say that it's the story of seven monks that get kidnapped and decapitated, I mean, you know, that doesn't really attract that many people. And there is something in the film that touches people.

It's not just about those monks; it's about man. And it's a philosophical portrait of man in harsh conditions, in conditions of life and death. And at a time when we're being told over and over beware your neighbor, be afraid of what you don't know, of the stranger, those men said, we will not be afraid.

I think that's the deeper level of understanding of the film. And also, there is something that I think touched the French audiences - and audiences elsewhere because the film has come out already in Italy, in England and Spain. It's the notion of a different time.

These monks live in a time that's more humane. They're not rushed like we are. They don't have cell phones and computers. They - their time feels good. It's quite testing, to begin with, when you see the film because you think, oh, my god. Oh, my god. Nothing is happening. It's going to be yet again one of those incredibly boring French films. But at the same time, it feels good. There's something more soothing about the way they apprehend time.

SIEGEL: As I mentioned, American moviegoers who know of you, Lambert Wilson, probably know you from "The Matrix," from two of "The Matrix" films, in which you play a villain. In fact, checking your roles in American movies, you very often - I find you very often play a villain. Why is that? What's so villainous about you on this side of the Atlantic?

Mr. WILSON: (Laughing) I am French. That's the answer. I am French, and therefore, I can only play a villain, because villains are Europeans, and particularly the French because, you know, it's obvious that French people are odious.

And sometimes, I think they are. You know, when I'm in Paris, I just think that everybody is a villain. But that's the reason.

SIEGEL: What you're describing is the way in which American directors and casting directors regard the French when it comes to a film.

Mr. WILSON: Not all the time. It's a little bit more problematic for men as opposed to women. I think that women, actresses...

SIEGEL: We like French women.

Mr. WILSON: Exactly. And they can be goodies. They can be good girls. They can be victims. So they have more opportunities. Men have a tougher time because, yes, first of all, when I mention the fact that I am French, people are immediately going to imagine that I'm carrying a baguette under my arm and that I have a beret on my head - a little bit.

SIEGEL: Let me explain that you are in our New York bureau, so I actually cannot verify that you're not wearing a beret or carrying a baguette.

Mr. WILSON: I did come with my onions.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILSON: No, but it has been - it has proved a little problematic over the years. And in a way, I've momentarily given up. But I'm 52 now, so I'm entering a different era in my career. And I think that there's a whole generation of other baddies that I could gladly portray.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Well, Lambert Wilson, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. WILSON: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Lambert Wilson plays Brother Christian in the French film "Of Gods and Men."

(Soundbite of music)

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