(Soundbite of music)
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
The story of the kidnapping and subsequent death in 1996 of seven French monks in Algeria is the basis for the new French film "Of Gods and Men." The monks were kidnapped by an armed Islamic terrorist group, but it remains unclear who actually murdered them. The film won the grand prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival.
Film critic David Edelstein has a review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: "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 foremost about men: French Trappist monks in the mid-1990s doing good works in a poor Algerian hill town. It centers on whether they should stay in their monastery while Islamic terrorists are roaming the countryside killing foreigners and non-fundamentalists.
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 - heavenly light or soaring music or anything that suggests 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.
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 Insha'Allah, 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 will truly serve a higher purpose. Brother Christian is adamant that quote, "the good shepherd doesn't abandon his flock for the wolves."
After the final decision is made, Beauvois delivers a tour-de-force sequence in which his camera holds on each man alone with his own thoughts - and even though they're listening to the now over-familiar overture from "Swan Lake," it's so moving, 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 envious when the brother played by Michael Lonsdale's says, I'm not scared of death. I'm a free man.
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.
Lambert Wilson, one of the stars of the film "Of Gods and Men," is well-known in France for his many roles in movies, TV shows and musicals. Here he is singing on his collection of French songs recorded in 2007.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. LAMBERT WILSON (Actor): (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)
BIANCULLI: For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
(Soundbite of music)