Winner of the Grand Prize at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, Xavier Beauvois' impressively restrained humanist drama centers on eight French Trappist monks whose faith is tested when the remote Algerian monastery in which they reside is threatened by a group of ruthless Islamic fundamentalists. Yet Of Gods and Men almost immediately aims to move beyond its specific narrative circumstances by opening with a beautiful wide shot of the North African mountains that surround the impoverished village the monks call home and by following these conflicted men as they partake in their everyday activities.
Beauvois often juxtaposes the details of his story with the timelessness of nature and the seemingly endless, often violent battles engaged by those who want to sustain or gain power, often in the name of religious righteousness. We witness — via a series of spare, carefully composed scenes — the eight men as they slowly deal with the reality of their situation: Should they leave the villagers that have come to rely on them for stability, advice and medical needs, or should they succumb to their fears and flee?
Screenwriter Etienne Comar, who bases the story on a true-life incident in 1996, clearly isn't interested in easy conclusions, neither entirely vilifying the terrorists nor turning the monks into wholly benevolent heroes. Ultimately, the film's lasting impression is that of the monks' emotionally wrought faces — most notably that of their leader, brother Christian (Lambert Wilson), and of their sage old doctor, brother Luc (Michael Lonsdale) — all of whom convey the turmoil and complexity of a situation that transcends time and place. Grade: B
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