From left, : Olivier Perrier and Philippe Laudenbach star in "Of Gods… (Sony Pictures Classics…)
"Of Gods and Men" is a thrilling adventure of the spirit. Austere yet provocative, this is not only a film about faith, it also has faith that the power generated by complex moral decisions can be as unstoppable as any runaway locomotive.
Directed by Xavier Beauvois and based on the true story of a profound life-and-death crisis faced by nine French monks in a monastery in Algeria's Atlas Mountains in the mid-1990s, "Of Gods and Men" has been nothing less than a sensation in its native France.
The film won the grand jury prize, Cannes' second highest honor, and has been nominated for 11 Césars, the French Academy Award, including best picture, director, screenplay, cinematography and a trio of acting nominations.
Just as impressive for a film with monks and more monks as protagonists, "Of Gods and Men" exploded commercially in France, getting more than 2 million admissions in only its first five weeks in theaters.
Beauvois, whose last film was the little-seen but excellent crime drama "Le Petit Lieutenant," has accomplished all this not by pandering to the audience or sensationalizing Etienne Comar's thoughtful script. Rather, he's taken the opposite approach and trusted rigor and restraint to be his most effective tools.
Though it works up considerable dramatic heft, "Of Gods and Men" is careful to start quietly, choosing to emphasize, in Caroline Champetier's luminous cinematography, the tranquil setting of the Cistercian monastery in the remote Algerian community of Tibhirine.
In a way that echoes "Into Great Silence," Philip Gröning's memorable documentary about monastic life, "Of Gods and Men" is decidedly not in a hurry. It opts instead to slowly immerse viewers in the dailiness of the monks' lives as they move through sacred prayer rituals and secular tasks including gardening, cleaning, building and making honey.
The film also emphasizes from the start how well the monks, who are unmistakably there to do service, not proselytize, fit into the town's Muslim community. Benevolent but never paternalistic, they are invited to family celebrations, enjoy easy relations with the local religious leaders and, in the form of brother Luc (the veteran Michael Lonsdale), provide minimal but essential medical care.
We meet all the monks eventually, but the one who makes the biggest impression, aside from Luc, is Christian, who has been elected by the others to be their prior, or leader. As played by Lambert Wilson, best known to American audiences for his role as the Merovingian in the "Matrix" films, Christian is forceful and articulate. He's someone whose clear sense of what the monks should be doing drives the action and makes him seem both sure of himself and, at times, intransigent and unwilling to compromise.
This scene setting is impeccably done, and along with it comes the sense that, humble and unassuming though it may be, these monks and villagers are living in a paradise on earth. As is the case with all paradises, however, it is inevitable that there will be a shattering fall.
The first intimations of this are reports that a girl in a nearby town was stabbed on a bus for not wearing the hijab, or traditional Muslim head covering. The local imam is as horrified as the monks at these first stirrings of Islamic fundamentalism, declaring "the world's gone mad."
Then things come closer to home, and we watch as a gang of terrorists led by the implacable Ali Fayattia (Farid Larbi) slaughter a group of Croatian construction workers whose only crime is that they are not Muslims. A visit to the monastery by Ali and his men underlines that despite all that has gone before, the life-or-death threat to the Christian monks could not be more real.
"Of Gods and Men" compellingly examines the ways the monks, simultaneously men and men of God, deal with this stark change in their reality. Though their dilemma can be framed in the simplest terms — should they stay or should they go — the factors they have to consider make the decision are extraordinarily complex.
For one thing, staying would mean accepting military protection from a government the monks are not in sympathy with. But leaving would mean abandoning the village that considers them "the branch on which we perch."
In addition to these factors, issues of personal responsibility, of religious vocation, of how you lead your life, loom large, leading to crises of faith that are different for each of the monks. Is leaving prudence or cowardice, is staying protecting the flock or committing collective suicide? There are no easy answers to questions like these, and the film has the grace not to pretend otherwise.