FilmMarch 21, 2011 at 9:41 am

Review: Of Gods and Men

Cannes prize–winner provokes stimulating debate.

At a time when many find it increasingly difficult to separate religion from religious extremism, Of Gods and Men could not be more appropriately timed. As topical as it is poignant, the film, which was awarded the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival, draws on true events to ask how altruism and virtue persist in such violent and uncertain times.

The French import is inspired by the story of an order of Trappist monks residing in a largely Muslim Algerian community during the mid–’90s. Motivated by their own personal paths, Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson) and his order of monks spend their days cultivating their crops and preserves for the local village market. Meanwhile, the monastery doctor, Brother Luc (Michael Lonsdale) keeps himself busy by treating anywhere from 100 to 150 patients a day — many of them ailing women or children injured in armed conflicts.

Throughout the film, Christian studies Islamic texts and worships with his Muslim neighbors, believing any differences between their faiths to be superficial and reconcilable. But a swelling force of Islamic extremists comes to threaten both the monastery and its surrounding community. An elderly Muslim from the village first identifies the hypocrisy of their looming menace. “These people call themselves religious,” he informs, “[but] they don’t even read the Koran.”

The order must make a decision: accept the protection (and consequent brutality) of the government’s military, abandon their struggling village or face ultimate martyrdom.

Aside from its powerful performances and understated script, Of Gods and Men benefits from Xavier Beauvois’ brilliant direction. Beauvois effortlessly establishes visual and aural contrasts between the gentle, pious environment of the monastery and the harsh conditions of the outside world. Such comparisons elicit the larger questions of the place of morality and values in contemporary society. Do the principles for which Christian and his monks stand no longer apply to a modern world drowning in terror? Or is it the commitment to these ideals that can ultimately redeem a mankind falling to such evil?

Thankfully, Of Gods and Men is a film that concerns itself more with provoking such profound and challenging questions rather than offering facile, thinly veiled political answers. What’s more, given current affairs, these are concerns that truly have a rightful place in all of our minds.

4/5 Stars
Directed by: Xavier Beauvois
Starring: Lambert Wilson, Michael Lonsdale
Rated PG–13, 122 min.

 
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