thu 06/05/2021

Of Gods and Men | reviews, news & interviews

Of Gods and Men

Of Gods and Men

The remarkable story of Cistercian monks threatened by Islamic terror

'Of Gods and Men is set in, of all the uncinematic locations, a still, often silent Cistercian monastery'

It has been one of the most surprising hits this year in French cinemas - a mostly male film which poses deep and pertinent questions about religion or, more specifically, religions. Its ultimate theme is the price of Christian devotion. Of Gods and Men is set in, of all the uncinematic locations, a still, often silent Cistercian monastery in North Africa, from which it derives its muted aesthetic tone and extremely careful pace.

It has been one of the most surprising hits this year in French cinemas - a mostly male film which poses deep and pertinent questions about religion or, more specifically, religions. Its ultimate theme is the price of Christian devotion. Of Gods and Men is set in, of all the uncinematic locations, a still, often silent Cistercian monastery in North Africa, from which it derives its muted aesthetic tone and extremely careful pace.

The cast all give performances of great humanity and individuality

Although it never specifically says as much until the end credits roll, the film is based on events which took place in Algeria in the mid-1990s, a period in the country’s history when Islamic fundamentalism had started to introduce severe instability. Among their many victims, roving militants were targeting foreign nationals. As a result a Cistercian abbey, a benign remnant of French colonialism in a village in the Atlas Mountains, came under threat. Though accepted by the community ("we are the birds, you are the branch," says one of the villagers in the film), for whom they provided medical care, for three years the small group of eight monks went in fear of their lives. Though vulgar in such circumstances to talk of spoiler alerts, it adds an extra dimension for those unfamiliar (as I was) with the story to enter the cinema unburdened by the full facts.

OMH_Of-Gods-And-MenOf Gods and Men dramatises those three years as they wrestle with the prospect of martyrdom (pictured, Olivier Rabourdin as Brother Christophe). The first time the militants, whom we have already seen murder some foreign workers, visit the monastery, it is on Christmas night. For all the menace they embody, they seek not the monks’ expulsion but medical help. The scene featuring the reasoned refusal of the abbot Dom Christian (played with adamantine authority by Lambert Wilson) to let armed men enter the premises has an extraordinary moral force. They go straight back inside and celebrate Midnight Mass. This is a Christmas movie with a difference.

The gripping power of Of Gods and Men, directed by Xavier Beauvois from a screenplay by him and Etienne Comar, is located less in a dramatic surge towards some kind of endgame, deadly or otherwise, than in the intensely moving agonies of doubt endured by the monks as instinctive fear of death tests their faith to the limit. Should they give in to threats and leave? Or should they trust in God to deliver them from evil? In one early scene which mirrors the film’s last supper, Dom Christian goes round the table asking each monk in turn if he’d like to leave or stay. As the terrifying danger mounts, it turns out that their determination hardens.

ofgodsandmenThe cast all give performances of great humanity and individuality, none more than Michael Lonsdale (pictured left with Jacques Herlin to his right) as the gruff old medic. The simple rhythms of Cistercian life – several visits a day to the chapel to pray and sing the psalms, plus a daily mass – bleed intoxicatingly, hypnotically into the texture of the film. On the soundtrack, the psalms act as a kind of commentary on the trials they face, never more than when an angry helicopter from the Algerian security forces hovers deafeningly over the monastery.

But this is not just a film about a small group of remarkably courageous Frenchmen. As one would expect of a film which is intrigued by Christian doctrine, Of Gods and Men makes an effort to humanise its apparent villains. At the start of the three years dramatised here, Dom Christian de Chergé wrote a remarkable letter to be read in the case of his death, forgiving his putative murderers. The North African winter – the film was shot in Morocco – has a bleak and cursed beauty, never more so than in the heartrendingly poetic final scene, shot in the mountain snows.

Overleaf: watch the trailer to Of Gods and Men

The simple rhythms of Cistercian life bleed intoxicatingly, hypnotically into the texture of the film

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Editor Rating: 
5
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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