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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Of Gods and Men

Beauvois' award-winning French film based on true story

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Quiet is the sound of the Cistercian monastery in Of Gods and Men as the monks pad down the long corridor for their devotions. When one of their number tolls the chapel bell, the small white-robed congregation begins singing vespers in a plainchant floating heavenward like a mote of dust caught in sunlight. Afterward, when they retire to a common chamber to read, a muezzin's distant cry drifts through the window. The Cistercians are in Algeria in the 1990s, little suspecting that an Islamist insurgency is about to destroy their quiet existence.

Of Gods and Men
, the award-winning film by French director Xavier Beauvois, is a nuanced study of faith under pressure and the boundary where idealism turns into martyrdom. Drawn from a true story, Of Gods and Men unfolds against the backdrop of conflict. By the '90s the ruling party of Algeria, which had driven out the French colonists in a savage civil war, was now the target of a savage insurrection by Islamist militants in the Taliban mode. The terrorism creeps as slowly into the film as it did into the lives of the monks. The first we hear of it is in the conversation between the village elders and Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson), the monk's spokesman; the elders decry the murder of a girl for not wearing a veil and an attack on a moderate imam. Before long the threat of death is everywhere, the government responds with a heavy hand and the net of violence tightens around the monastery. The monks will have to decide how to respond.

It might be assumed that the presence of French Cistercians in a remote Algerian village was a vestige of colonialism, but regardless of the monastery's origins, the monks were not in the country to proselytize. They were integral to the life of their village and invited guests at Muslim ceremonies whose Koranic chants echoed many of their own beliefs. The kindly, aged Brother Luc (Michael Lonsdale) was especially beloved. The villagers sought his wise counsel on the ways of the human heart and lined up outside the monastery's dispensary, where he served as the area's only physician. Soon enough, terrorists were at the monastery's gate, demanding medicine.

The monks' response to the worsening political situation is not uniform and becomes the subject of respectful if animated disagreement. Some wanted to leave for safer ground while others had grown attached to their village. At least one of their number harbors doubts about the God who responds to their prayers with sublime silence. Brother Christian insists they must accept the mission God has called them to with neither resignation nor passivity, but rather the active pursuit of love and justice.

But some may well say that Brother Christian's nonresistance to the obvious evil of the terrorists served no useful purpose or that his stand put the good work of the monks in jeopardy by leaving them vulnerable to an unnecessary martyrdom. Of Gods and Men imposes no answer to the questions the monks continue to wrestle with even into the final scene as they disappear into the snowy mists near their monastery, led away under the guns of the terrorists.