"Of Gods and Men" explores that unsettled psychological space between duty and survival. It's static, introspective picture, lingering on moments of thought and concern, eschewing an ambitious staging of political conflict to huddle close to deliberation, taking in the intensity of the room with a group of men not accustomed to expressing their doubt.
The year is 1996, and seven French Trappist monks, led by Christian (Lambert Wilson, best known for playing the Merovingian in the "Matrix" movies), have forged a monastery in a small Algerian village. During the day, the men tend to the grounds and interact with the locals, offering medical help and counseling to the community. When that peaceful routine is shattered by the growing threat of Islamic extremists, the monks grow fragmented, with many in the order looking to exit, fearful of the violence that's spreading across the land. Steadfast in his commitment to God and the village, Christian elects to stay, causing great turmoil as the group reflects upon their religious commitment and human doubt.
Based on a true incident, "Of Gods and Men" elects a dramatic path of observance over a tightly wound retelling of the facts. It's a story of men tested after years of peaceful consistency, facing a terror they understand, yet are quite powerless to fight. Director Xavier Beauvois carefully develops the ambiance of the monastery through an examination of routine, quietly observing the monks while they encounter daily business, detailing a comfort between their presence and the larger Islamic world, with most religious lines erased between neighbors and, in some cases, friends. The pace is slowed, but the reward is a true atmospheric feel of the location and individual temperaments, with daily visits to the chapel (where they sing hymns of faith and mortality) setting a musical foundation of unity that comes to be tested by outside horrors.
What's stunning about "Of Gods and Men" is how skillfully it balances the fears stirred up by the encroaching extremists. It's not hysteria that comes to suffocate the monks, but a primal sense of survival, watching as these men face death, some of the very first time. Beauvois focuses on these haunted reactions, which range from panic to resignation, articulated through purposeful, weighty dialogue delivered by talented actors, with special attention paid to Michael Lonsdale, an industry veteran who infuses the role of an elderly doctor with a spectacular read of understated emotion. The director is wise to hold close to the men, offering the viewer a mournful embrace of unspoken feelings, expressing a torrent of thoughts, with the light of God coming into to view more as a needed emotional crutch once aggression enters the monastery.
Lacking an expansive cultural overview, "Of Gods and Men" elects to set an intimate mood, a choice that initially feels awkwardly distancing, only to pay off in the end with a riveting final act of acceptance, accentuated through the orchestral flood of Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake." Beautifully expressed and measured, "Of Gods and Men" seizes a tumultuous state of mind with captivating cinematic control, making flashes of resistance and companionship all the more heartfelt and devastating.
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