In the details
French drama skillfully paints portrait of Trappist monks in peril
There’s no great reason to “expect the unexpected” with Of Gods and Men—quite the contrary in fact. But a big part of this remarkable French film’s brilliance resides in its skillful orchestration of the contingencies and small surprises in what looks, at first glance, like a devastatingly predictable situation.
That situation is basically this: In 1996, a group of Trappist monks living in a monastery in a remote part of Algeria are faced with an escalating moral and spiritual crisis when an uprising of militant Islamacist guerillas puts them all in mortal danger. Even with the Algerian authorities urging them to return to France immediately, the monks refuse to accept protection from the military and persist in serving the surrounding community of Muslim villagers.
Obviously, there’s suspense to be had in that setup, but writer-director Xavier Beauvois (Le Petit Lieutenant) and co-writer Etienne Comar direct most of the attention to character conflicts, internal and otherwise, among the monks, who are viewed both as individuals and as practitioners of a very particular kind of faith. The interplay of internal tensions and external threats takes shape as quietly riveting drama, with small, surprising revelations taking steady precedence over anything remotely resembling a grand theatrical climax.
Part of what emerges is a hauntingly individuated group portrait. The variety of faces and attitudes among the nine monks makes for one of the more pungent mini-dramas that percolate within the larger action. Capturing the distinctive, earthy, diverse humanity of these men of exceptional commitment is another of this film’s signal achievements.
Two figures among the nine in that group make especially strong impressions: grave, steely Christian (Lambert Wilson), the group’s elected leader, and Luc (Michael Lonsdale), a great slouching bear of a man who also serves as physician to the neighboring villagers. Wilson and Lonsdale, two veteran character actors in change-of-pace roles, are thoroughly convincing as the ruggedly iconic figures in the foreground of Beauvois’ heartening dramatic frieze.
The film’s portraits of courage and faith develop in a predominantly humanistic and ecumenical context. The monks are profoundly Catholic, but they practice their vocation in thoroughly Muslim surroundings—participating and sharing in the community rather than trying to convert or evangelize it. As the plural nouns of the title imply, dogmatic piety is not really a primary factor in the spirituality at the heart of this story.
Much of the film’s special power is a matter of cumulative emotion. There are several memorable scenes that are also moments of extraordinary feeling, but in each case the emotion wells up in the midst of close, understated observation of the characters, and rarely in terms of emotive dialog.
The largest of those moments comes late in the film, as the gentlest phase of a multifaceted dramatic climax. It’s a dinner scene in which the monks listen to a recording of Swan Lake. Two earlier, smaller scenes are also special high points: Luc’s conversation with a village lass who asks him about love, and Christian’s unexpectedly pacific encounter with Ali Fayattia (Farid Larbi), an armed militant who arrives at the monastery threatening to do harm.