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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Review: Of Gods and Men (2010)

* * * 1/2

Director: Xavier Beauvois
Starring: Lambert Wilson, Michael Lonsdale

Do you stay or do you go? To stay means risking death, but to leave means undercutting the whole point of ever having been there in the first place. Xavier Beauvois' Of Gods and Men, based on events which took place during the Algerian Civil War in 1996, centres on the conflict between doing what's best for yourself and doing what you think is best generally. It's a thoughtful and often powerful film with plenty to recommend it.

Of Gods and Men is set in the Tibhirine monastery, run under the direction of Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson). The monks live peacefully alongside the largely Muslim population of the village, to whom they provide assistance in the form of medical attention as well as clothing. The routines of the village are interrupted by the conflict between the government and Islamic fundamentalists and the monks must decide whether to flee Algeria or stay behind, despite the danger, and continue to do the work they feel they have been called to do.

The decision is not an easy one and much of the film is spent watching the monks as they examine their consciences and try to decide the best course. The dangers they face are made real by the arrival of militants led by Ali Fayattia (Farid Larbi), though Christian is able to earn his respect through his gentle, reasoned refusal to acquiese to the militants demands for the monatery's store of medical supplies. However, when Ali is later killed, the danger increases, especially since the army now believes that the monks are sympathetic to the militants.

Beauvois unfolds the story in a minimalist way, letting the landscape and the actors' faces tell much of the story. There is one long scene towards the end where the monks simply sit around a table, Last Supper style, listening to a recording from Swan Lake, their expressions cycling through a wealth of emotions. What little remains of their idyll is finally torn away shortly thereafter when all but two of the monks are taken hostage and the film ends with a ghostly image as the hostages are marched into a snowy, misty landscape. What happened to the monks in real life is not known (by which I mean that the exact circumstances of their deaths, and whether they were murdered by their kidnappers or killed accidentally by Algerian forces, is still in dispute), but Beauvois' focus really isn't on the manner of death. Rather, he focuses on giving a sense of meaning to their lives and their refusal to bow to the threat of violence.

Of Gods and Men is a film that starts very slowly but which builds and becomes very engrossing and affecting by the end. As far as the characters go, only Christian is the one who is distinct from the start by virtue of being the leader and driving a lot of the action at the beginning of the story, however by the end each of the monks has come more clearly into focus and Beauvois is able to give a solid sense of the internal conflicts and moral struggles plaguing each of them. I suspect that this is a movie that plays better the second time, after you've had some experience with its rhythms. Watching it the first time will require a bit of patience, but if you can be patient with it, it ends up being a very rich and rewarding film.

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