Xavier Beauvois’ Of Gods and Men is a movie that I’ve had trepidations about seeing and trying to review since it debuted at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. The reason for this was that the film seemed to be a celebration of Christian courage in the face of Muslim aggression, a concept that seemed to very potentially right wing and offensive to my atheistic liberal elite worldview. Of course dismissing something because it conflicts with your political outlook is a rather immature and closed minded way of operating, but the fact remains that watching something that will potentially make your blood boil is not my idea of a good time. Consequentially I skipped the movie when it came out in theaters and found myself placing the disc onto my Netflix queue only to take it off and then put it back on again. Finally I bit the bullet and had the movie delivered… only to have it sit on my coffee table unwatched for another month or so. Finally my sense of duty (and of wanting to finally return the disc to Netflix) urged me to finally watch the film and make up my own mind.
The film is based on the true story of a group of French Monks living in a monastery in Algeria during the mid 90s. Focusing specifically on the group’s leader Christian (Lambert Wilson) and Luc (Michael Lonsdale) who is in charge of the monastery’s clinic. The monks seem to have a good relationship with the leadership of the village they are set up near but they find themselves increasingly threatened by the civil war that’s going on across Algeria between the nation’s government and Islamic rebels. The Algerian government offers the monks military protection, but the monks refuse, believing that allowing the military of a potentially corrupt government was contrary to their mission. This leaves them open to attack by the rebels, who have been targeting westerners. In spite of this the monks vote to remain where they are, fully aware that this could lead to their untimely deaths.
I don’t think I’m spoiling anything if I reveal that the film does indeed end with the monks being rounded up and killed. I say that this isn’t a spoiler because the real events are quite well known in the film’s native France. Saying that these monks die isn’t any more of a spoiler than it is to say that Timothy Treadwell and Christopher McCandless die at the end of Grizzly Man and Into the Wild respectively or that Aron Ralston survives his ordeal in 127 Hours. Of course it’s interesting that the first films I think to compare Of Gods and Men to are movies about wilderness adventures gone wrong, but perhaps that comparison is apt. After all this is a movie about people entering a hostile territory where they don’t belong for vague reasons only to be predictably killed for it.
This is where my anti-religious biases kick in; while many people would see what the monks did as a heroic act of courage, I see it as an act of arrogant hubris. The monks claim that they’re protecting the village that they’re located near, but we’re given very little explanation of what good they’re doing these villagers aside from operating a clinic with one medical doctor. It is to Xavier Beauvois’ credit that I can look at the evidence in his film and come to this conclusion that is contrary to what others might see in it, but I still wish he’d addressed these issues a bit more directly. There’s maybe one stray line in the film addressing the legacy of colonialism that this monastery could be seen to represent, but otherwise Beauvois seems to stick surprisingly close to the official line of courage in the face of danger.
The content of the film itself actually feels like a fairly faithful reenactment of the facts of the monk’s last year. The monastery and the rituals employed therein seem very accurate and the monks themselves seem like smart but believably flawed people. The acting is quite good, especially that of Lambert Wilson and Michael Lonsdale but I would have liked more time to get to know some of the ensemble in more detail and get a better sense of their conflicting views. The technical side of the film is very down to earth and matter of fact. The cinematography is slick and attractive but it doesn’t call attention to itself and neither do the camera movements.
I expected to have a stronger reaction to this movie either positively or negatively, but the reaction I had to it ended up being rather muted. I enjoyed the film on its basic story level; it is after all a well made movie with a beginning, middle, and end. However, I expected to be a lot more engaged with the issues than I was. Pretty much everything I got out of the film seemed like my own reaction to the true story rather than anything that Xavier Beauvois did to enlighten things, and as such the movie was kind of a disappointment.
*** out of Four