Monastic tranquility gives way to a tense standoff in an early scene of the powerful French drama Of Gods and Men. Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson), the bespectacled but forceful leader of a Trappist monastery in rural Algeria, confronts a band of armed Islamists who barge in late one night. Despite the guerillas' guns and hostility, Brother Christian stares them down, deflects their demands for medical care and even throws in a quote from the Koran that praises Christian priests.
Until that point, the eight monks of the Tibhirine monastery speak so little, you wonder if they've taken vows of silence. The monks' cooperation and peaceable manners seem to make conversation unnecessary, and they've lived for years in the Muslim town, where they offer medical care, attend weddings and generally serve as respected members of the community. But Algeria's Civil War during the 1990s brings the threat of violence closer and closer to the Christian enclave, raising a highly pertinent dilemma for a post-9/11 audience: Is self-preservation dishonorable in the face of possible attack, or should the faithful stand their ground in the face of extremism?
Director Xavier Beauvois co-wrote the screenplay with Etienne Comar based on a tragic episode involving seven monks in Algeria in 1996. The film provides brief glimpses and sketchy reports about the violence sweeping the country, and a government official practically begs the monks to leave.
In two rich meeting scenes, the monks weigh the value of leaving versus staying like sequestered jurors wrangling over a verdict. For many, the test redoubles their faith, despite the earthly risks. Initially interchangeable, each monk reveals his idiosyncrasies and human sides of the course the story, with Wilson and Michael Lonsdale, as the monastery's aging doctor, emerging as the strongest leaders. By the end, the film feels like a modern-day version of the Garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus chose to face his imminent death at the hands of his accusers, rather than flee. There's even a Last Supper scene, with an unexpected but haunting musical choice.
Winner of the 2010 Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival, Of Gods and Men sets a deliberate pace and contemplative tone that refuses to turn the monks into Hollywood action heroes. Instead, Beauvois invites the audience to consider the monks' religious devotion in the film's long pauses and tracking shots across the North African landscape. The timelessness of the land and the archetypal nature of the characters and conflicts can make Of Gods and Men feel comparable to the much more visceral There Will Be Blood, another tail of faith at odds with human foibles. Like the American historical drama, Of Gods and Men seems to stand outside fleeting cinematic trends to offer a tale that feels like one for the ages.