We know that Xavier Beauvois’ Cannes Grand Prize-winner Of Gods and Men was drawn from the 1996 incident in which seven Tibhirine Trappist monks were kidnapped and eventually beheaded during the Algerian Civil War, the exact circumstances of their slaughter a matter of controversy and contention to this day. So we might expect something draped in dread to unfold here, a drama whose hopeless fluctuations amount to nothing more than a death march. But inevitability is a force one strives to come to terms with when one’s life is devoted to worship and public service. That things are bound to end poorly becomes a matter of secondary importance once Beauvois and his collaborators usher us into this realm of carefully nurtured quietude, where disparate, overwhelming inner struggles are conducted and resolve terribly hard-won, where fraternal bonds are largely strengthened as much through disagreement and prolonged panic as they are through a sense of harmony and shared ideals. This is indeed a meditative movie (how could it be otherwise?), yet also at times a joyous one, one that reminds us of several important things: that running away only brings new things to run from; that need, vocation, and genuine communion transcends the confines of dogma; and that god (or God), whether regarded as a concept or a true presence, is only alive when his followers engage fully with the world in all its disorder.
Written by Beauvois and Etienne Comar, and photographed with a loving (and necessary) bias toward natural light by Caroline Champetier, Of Gods and Men pulls us in by immersing us in the monks’ daily activities, especially those of the abbot Christian (Lambert Wilson), an Islamic scholar who has the magnificent nerve to quote the Koran to Muslim terrorists threatening his life, and Luc (Michael Lonsdale), a trained physician who administers humble remedies (not to mention shoes) to the local, largely impoverished Algerian population. As the threat of uprising prompts government officials to plead with that monks to flee and the townsfolk to plead for their steadfastness, each of the monks are forced to make their cases for staying or going, the disagreements causing considerable tension that seems only to abate when the group joins in song, their roster of Gregorian chants emerging as one of the film’s most fortifying refrains, the other being Beauvois’ dogged use of lingering close-ups to glean some sense of the monks’ individual inner turmoil, which emerges as diverse and resonant. Luc, who is not the eldest among the monks but whose health is poor, seems to be the only one who knows from the start what his choice is. “I’m not scared of death,” he says. “I’m a free man.”
It’s serendipitous that Of Gods and Men should arrive in theatres while Claire Denis’ White Material still lingers in the memories of many moviegoers (at least in the US; here in Canada the film has yet to enjoy a well-deserved release). Both concern the legacy of French colonialism as it effects those attempting to make a life for themselves in those countries afflicted, but the contrast is fascinating. Denis’ mise en scène is narcotic in its way, but also secular, dark, fierce and brutal, where Beauvois’ approach centers on the serene and a universal, non-denominational sense of religious feeling, even when the grotesque looms just outside the monastery gates. It’s a gift to have both these visions circulating through our collective consciousness, helping us to reflect on the complexity of global ruptures, and those ghosts from the past that continue to haunt us.