To say that terrorism has become a watchword over the last decade is a gross understatement. Both in the real world and the cinematic one, it seems to have permeated every aspect of daily life. Initially, most movies painted it very much as ‘us vs. them’: the terrorists are the bad guys, the good guys almost always traditional heroes – policemen, soldiers, firemen et cetera. However, as the years have rolled on, and the threat of terrorism has become a far less unimaginable spectre and more of a daily concern, we have seen a gradual move toward humanisation of both sides.
Paul Greengrass’ powerful 2006 film United 93 may have occasionally fallen prey to mawkishness, but it chose to make the terrorists characters rather than constructs – the first major film since 9/11 to do so. Since then, there has been a gradual erosion of the us-vs-them mentality on film, with Chris Morris’ terrific Four Lions choosing to make the terrorists the focus, and shedding some light on the contexts in which people decide to, essentially, blow themselves up.
Now, with Xavier Beauvois’ movie Of Gods and Men, we see the curtain pulled back slightly further, and the French director’s central idea, to have Trappist monks – who themselves adhere to a strict religious code – as the targets of Muslim extremists, makes for a thoroughly interesting exploration of not just terrorism, but the meanings and motives of religion itself.
The film’s central plot is based on the true story of monks who were based in the Tibhirine monastery in the mountains of Algeria in 1996. Led by Brother Christian, the monks spend much of their time in routine, from singing psalms to helping their ‘flock’ of locals who live in the small town directly surrounding the monastery, inhabited by both Muslim and Christian believers. When a group of Muslim extremists arrive in the area and start killing people, the monks must decide whether to stay and face the daily threat of death or leave their flock to the extremists and continue God’s work elsewhere…
Beauvois’ film, much like Morris’, heightens the imminence and closeness of terrorism, taking it from a global to a local stage. Of Gods and Men is a film whose plot is driven by the constant threat of terrorist attack, but its primary concern is one of faith, not action. During several profound discussions – during which the monks try to decide whether to stay or go – the meaning of faith is absolutely central, with some of the brothers insisting that to leave the monastery is to stray from God’s path and others arguing that moving to another monastery would guarantee their ability to preach God’s word; being killed by terrorists, they argue, would be a meaningless sacrifice. The dialogue is peppered with Christian rhetoric, making the subtitles occasionally difficult to follow, but the poignant lines really resonate: Brother Luc’s speech stating that his strength of faith means he does not fear terrorists, nor the army, nor death, is magnificent, and his final declaration of “I am a free man” is moving and superbly delivered.
What also sticks with you in Beauvois’ film is the faces he’s collected in his tiny ensemble cast. Lambert Wilson’s Christian is the fulcrum, his every expression imbued with the strain of someone constantly wrestling with the most difficult decisions, while Michael Lonsdale, as Luc, is jovial for much of the film, making his severe words to the Algerian army even more forceful. All of the other monks are also wonderfully acted, especially Olivier Rabourdin’s Christophe, undergoing a crisis of faith, and Jacque Herlin’s Amédée, the group’s eldest member.
Faith might not seem filmic, but Beauvois’ camera imbues scenes with an emotional immediacy; after an argument with the local army outpost, helicopters fly past the monastery’s church during mass, prompting Brother Christian to begin singing a psalm. When the other brothers join in, the sound of rotor blades is gradually faded out and replaced with the sounds of singing, until we are given a fabulous panning shot from the helicopter’s view accompanied by the monks’ resonant voices. Similarly, a meal scene goes from joy to heartache and back, Beauvois’ camera drifting across the table, focusing on each face as it breaks into a smile, then into tears. These are but two examples of Beauvois’ emotional eye, and the skill with which the French director draws out emotion from every scene is at times quite extraordinary. Even the fairly mundane scenes of daily routine are well-composed, those in the chapel during mass especially so.
While its slow pace and long unbroken scenes may aggravate the more popcorn-happy members of an audience, Of Gods and Men delivers a memorable perspective on the meaning of faith, the purpose of religion, and the human mind’s gift for both absolute compassion and reckless violence.
Verdict: Mixing the tender with the tough, Xavier Beauvois has made one of the best films of the year, his camera and its subjects combining to create a marvellous, powerful drama which deals with the most basic human instincts and the deepest-held religious beliefs. Truly excellent.