Director: Xavier Beauvois
Of Gods And Men boasts immense power. Dramas can be restrained and quiet, but they can often break under their brittleness; not this one. Xavier Beauvois’ film utilizes the tension of silence and the dignity of its characters to monumental effect. 1996: the Atlas Mountains in Algeria. A group of nine Trappist monks (led by Lambert Wilson’s Brother Christian) reside in a small village and integrate with the locals and provide services to them (Michael Lonsdale’s doctor, Olivier Rabourdin’s farmer, etc.). However, the tranquility of their existence in the village is about to be shattered by an Islamist extremist insurgency. The quandary: save themselves or stay with the villagers?
Of Gods and Men took the Grand Prix at Cannes this year. Indeed, it has a lot in common with Palme d’Or winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Both films boast impressive performances. Wilson usually plays subservient arrogant types (especially when cast in blockbuster-flavoured crap like Catwoman or Sahara), but his Brother Christian is so committed to the village and his God-given mission that it’s impossible to feel anything but admiration. This dignity and moral rectitude is to be found in all of the monks, and this dignity is the backbone of Of Gods And Men. As with Uncle Boonmee, there is nothing particularly subjective in the camera; we get a bird’s eye view of life in the monastery as the monks go about their daily lives. Then, when the insurgency does come along, the camera remains fixed on the monks and their reaction. The fascinating part is that their response is to go on living as they were: in peace amongst the community. The quiet dignity of these men is truly admirable and utterly beguiling, their humility drawing the viewer into their world. A scene in which they dine silently together whilst listening to Tchaikovsky is mesmerizing. Meanwhile, the insurgency is never far away and, though rarely onscreen, they are a constant threat, and tension is palpable throughout.
The pacing of Of Gods And Men will alienate, and its solemnity will grate on others, but it remains a testament to the conviction of these men and their moral stance in the face of the harshest adversity.