"Of Gods and Men" explores that unsettled psychological space between duty and survival. It's a 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.
The AVC encoded image (2.35:1 aspect ratio) presentation offers almost a monochromatic look for monastery interiors, with a strong evocation of meager means, sold with a blue and white color palette. Stronger hues are explored in the heavenly outdoors, with lush green forests and amber mountains revealed in full. Clarity is consistent here, with solid facial detail and varied costume textures, while the sets offer crisp particulars to examine. Skintones are accurate, while shadow detail is supportive, keeping evening encounters clean and inviting.
The 5.1 DTS-HD sound mix creates a wonderful swell of voices for the hymn sequences, which sound lush and cavernous, creating a haunting feel of prayer and contemplation. Dialogue sequences are equally weighted, with a moderate circular hold that keeps the group dynamic alive, permitting confident, varied voices character and emotional weight. Atmospherics are not distinct, but provide some activity when the drama steps outdoors, with a pleasing environmental presence of forests and farms. Violence is cuts through silence with an intended piercing effect, generating required threat.
English and English SDH subtitles are offered.
"The Sacrificed Tibehirine: Further Investigation" (18:37) returns to the monastery with Father Lassauce, a man devoted to keeping the memory of the monks alive. We tour the grounds and trace the history of the monks, eventually meeting up with family members via screenwriter Etienne Comar. The tone here is mournful remembrance, but also examination, looking back on horrific events and their lasting impact.
"Merrimack College Augustine Dialogue IX with Author John W. Kiser" (40:50) sits down with the writer responsible for a book on the monks of Tibehirine, who didn't contribute to the making of the film. It's a dry chat of history and religious reflection, covering the author's experiences with research and salvation.
A Theatrical Trailer has been included.
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.