'Of Gods And Men': A Moving Test Of Faith

  • Playlist
  • Download
  • Embed
    Embed <iframe src="http://www.npr.org/player/embed/134239573/134239597" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no">
  • Transcript
"It is mad to stay, like it is mad to become a monk," says Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson) in Xavier Beauvois' 'Of Gods and Men'. i

"It is mad to stay, like it is mad to become a monk," says Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson) in Xavier Beauvois' Of Gods and Men. Marie-Julie Maille/Sony Pictures Classics hide caption

itoggle caption Marie-Julie Maille/Sony Pictures Classics
"It is mad to stay, like it is mad to become a monk," says Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson) in Xavier Beauvois' 'Of Gods and Men'.

"It is mad to stay, like it is mad to become a monk," says Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson) in Xavier Beauvois' Of Gods and Men.

Marie-Julie Maille/Sony Pictures Classics

Of Gods And Men

  • Director: Xavier Beauvois
  • Genre: Drama
  • Running Time: 120 minutes

Not rated, features graphic violence

With: Lambert Wilson, Michael Lonsdale, Olivier Rabourdin

(Recommended)

Of Gods and Men is the English title of Xavier Beauvois's stark drama, Des hommes et des dieux, which is, of course, Of Men and Gods. It's a small reversal, but it bothers me. The film is about men: French Trappist monks in the mid-1990s doing good work in a poor Algerian hill town. It centers on whether they should stay in their monastery while Islamic fundamentalists are roaming the countryside killing foreigners and nonfundamentalists.

In answer to the monks' prayers for guidance, there is no sign from on high, and no moment in the film you might call transcendental — no heavenly light or soaring music that would suggest divine intervention. It's all rather plain and down-to-earth. Faith, the film implies, is hard won, and the battle to discern God's will never ends.

What is that will? The Islamic extremists' God is intolerant and cruel; the monks' compassionate and nonjudgmental. The focus, throughout, is on the human perception of the Almighty. So: Of Men and Gods.

Whatever the film's title, the monks' intransigence is controversial — even, early on, within the fold. They're seen praying and chanting, toiling in the fields, teaching and giving medical aid and affectionately interacting with the locals — all while debating whether they should, indeed, get out. The country's military officials strongly urge them to flee; and some of the brothers feel their exit is inevitable. But the abbot, Brother Christian, played by Lambert Wilson, quietly refuses to let go of his mission. He does not even accept the military's offer of armed guards at night. He says he'll lock the door.

It's a mark of the movie's power that you rarely feel like slapping Brother Christian and dragging him to a departing plane. It's also a mark of its even, lucid spirit that this view of Christian missionaries bringing "Western civilization" to the Arab world doesn't play like old-fashioned colonialist propaganda.

Michael Lonsdale, Xavier Maly, Lambert Wilson, Jean-Marie Frin, Jacques Herlin i

The monks' decision to remain in Algeria leads to their eventual kidnapping and murder, but director Xavier Beauvois wisely focuses on what preceded their faith-based sacrifice. Sony Pictures Classics hide caption

itoggle caption Sony Pictures Classics
Michael Lonsdale, Xavier Maly, Lambert Wilson, Jean-Marie Frin, Jacques Herlin

The monks' decision to remain in Algeria leads to their eventual kidnapping and murder, but director Xavier Beauvois wisely focuses on what preceded their faith-based sacrifice.

Sony Pictures Classics

Director Beauvois shows over and over how the brothers accept the locals' faith. Brother Christian studies the Quran, and even says goodbye to a village friend with "Inshallah," meaning, "God be with you." He attends the Muslim equivalent of a christening and doesn't flinch at prayers asking Allah for "help against the people of the unbelievers." The great old French actor Michael Lonsdale plays the gentlest monk, the physician who also counsels a young village woman on love. They are men who see themselves as representatives of their loving God.

Of Gods and Men has a somewhat monotonous structure; basically, we're waiting for the bad guys to show up. But the brothers' debates pull you in. One says he didn't become a monk to have his throat slit. Another asks whether martyrdom serves a higher purpose. Brother Christian responds, "The good shepherd doesn't abandon his flock for the wolves."

After the final decision is made, Beauvois gives you a tour-de-force sequence in which his camera holds on each man alone with his own thoughts — and even though it's unfortunately scored to the now over-familiar overture from Swan Lake, you can nudge out of your mind the vision of Natalie Portman swooning in a flutter of bloody feathers. Even ye of little faith will be moved when Michael Lonsdale's brother says, "I'm not scared of death. I'm a free man."

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.