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Loosely based on true events, the French film Of Gods and Men tells the story of eight Trappist monks living in an Algerian Muslim community. Their co-existence is harmonious—the civilians depend on the monks for medical needs—until a group of Islamic fundamentalists slaughters a crew of Croatian workers for no apparent reason. The local army offers protection, which the head monk, Christian (Lambert Wilson), refuses without consulting the others. They’re not exactly pleased, but have little choice than to accept Christian’s decision.
But after a handful of militants break into the monastery on Christmas Eve demanding medical attention, the brothers feel the danger more urgently. It’s no longer a question of whether they want protection; the issue is whether to leave permanently. Christian, again, is adamant about not living in fear and staying for the good of the community, resting their fate in God’s hands. A few of the others would prefer to help themselves and get out ASAP, before they too end up dead.
By largely limiting the action to the monks’ ascetic daily lives, writer-director Xavier Beauvois helps the their musing become the audience’s own. The brothers say Mass, have meals, and attend to their daily chores. Luc (Michael Lonsdale), the medic who himself is ailing, sees up to 150 patients a day. They drive into town, passing through checkpoints as they see bodies by the roadside. It’s all quiet and meditative, and you can’t help but weigh—as the brothers do—the peaceful aspects of their existence against the fewer highly dangerous ones.
Their anguish over the decision is palpable. Christian, though he sees not terrorists but fellow men, is acutely aware of the concerns of his brethren, one of whom feels as if he’s losing faith. (“I pray, and I hear nothing,” he tells Christian. “Why be martyrs?”) When they do finally come to an agreement, the scene is gently triumphant: As they gather around a dinner table, one monk puts on classical music and passes out bottles of wine, with Beauvois then panning and momentarily resting on each brother’s smiling face. The script is also careful not to stereotype, with a closing voiceover by Christian saying, “I know how Islam is distorted by a certain Islamism.”
Anyone who knows the story on which Of Gods and Men is based, however, will realize that such good feelings won’t last. Indeed, the final scene is both beautiful and wrenching, a snowy and, again, quiet image that will haunt you like the monks’ persistent urge to flee their home.