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Of Gods and Men: movie review

In ‘Of Gods and Men,’ eight French monks living in the Algerian mountains choose humanity, not escape when faced with a chilling threat.

Lambert Wilson, Jean-Marie Frin, and Philippe Laudenbach (left to right) portray French monks (Christian, Paul, and Célestin, respectively) whose devotionalism is tested by Algerian terrorists in the powerful Xavier Beauvois film ‘Of Gods and Men.’

Sony Pictures Classic

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"Of Gods and Men" is one of the most austerely beautiful movies about the monastic life that I've ever seen. Based on true events, it's about eight Cistercian monks from France who lived in the Algerian mountains in the 1990s before being kidnapped in 1996 by Islamist terrorists.

The director Xavier Beauvois and his coscreenwriter Etienne Comar set up a duality between the meditative life of the monks, with their interspersed silences and their four daily hours of chanting, and the outside world, with its violent incursions and threats. And yet the film-makers never seek to define either of these worlds as more "real" than the other.

The monks are, in essence, spiritual vessels, but no more so than the Algerian villagers with whom they live peaceably (and whom they make no attempt to convert). The film's thesis is expressed by the order's ostensible leader, Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson), whose testament, set down when death is imminent, blames no one. "I know which caricatures of Islam a certain Islamism encourages," he writes. "This country and Islam, for me, are something else. They are a body and a soul." The monks refuse military protection not because they are willing to die – many of them, in fact, are initially in favor of fleeing to France – but because to do so would place them above the station of all those villagers who are equally terrorized.

The monks are rebuked by the local police chief for being remnants of French colonialism. (The military mind cannot, almost by definition, comprehend their devotionalism.) They are castigated for being naifs, but Christian and the others do not disagree that evil must be destroyed – they just do not want to be the destroyers. They trust in Providence. "Help will come from the Lord," says Christian, knowing full well, as do the others, that they will be martyred.

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