They had a chance to escape. Why didn’t they? Ten years after the murder of seven Trappist monks living in Algeria during that country’s civil war (1991-2002), French media brought the case back to everybody’s attention, and Etienne Comar, a Catholic film producer, started asking himself that question. Why didn’t the monks leave when they had the chance? They knew the dangers, but chose to stay. It was obvious that a movie about these seven men and their destiny would ultimately carry one huge theme: The power of faith.
In 1996, nine Trappist monks live in the monastery of Tibhirine where they grow vegetables, pray and perform various services to the poor Algerian population nearby, including treating medical problems and helping the illiterate in their dealings with authorities. The monks don’t really have enemies, but the Islamist rebels fighting the government need drugs and medical help from the monks, and demand it at gunpoint. The experience is obviously unsettling to the monks who begin to discuss various options. One alternative is to trust the rebels, give them what they want and hope that they leave them alone in the future – but that seems unlikely. Another alternative is to seek protection from the army, but they’re not much better than the rebels. The third option is to simply stay put, regardless of what happens. Or, they could go back to France.
Complicating the story in thoughtful ways
On some minor level, the movie addresses France’s old, troubled relationship with Algeria, but this isn’t really a story about colonialism and its legacy. Religion is the primary theme. On paper, this may seem like a typically Western look at heroic Christian monks who fall victim to monstrous radical Muslims who care so little for their fellow men that beheading them comes naturally to them. Perhaps it is that simple to some degree. But the filmmakers complicate the story in intelligent, thoughtful ways. It is clear that the rebels are of no use to the common Algerian whatsoever; if the poor need help they get it from the monks. But there’s also a scene where one of the monks reason with a rebel leader, even quoting a passage from the Koran; the two men end up shaking hands, displaying a sense of mutual respect. This ecumenical touch stays with the film throughout and the filmmakers teach us the paradox of how comforting and worthwhile faith is to those who choose to practice it in a genuine, quiet way… and how destructive it is for those who fall victim to the extremists, those who want to kill you if you are not one of them. We all know this of course, but Comar and director Xavier Beauvois don’t shove their message down our throats. Rather, they convey it in a peaceful, touching way, allowing our interest in the monks and how they reason grow slowly as we follow them in their everyday practices. Cinematographer Caroline Champetier captures the stark beauty of the Moroccan locations and the timeless solemnity of the monastery; the strong ensemble performance, where Lambert Wilson is the standout, is a boon.
I read a review where the critic complained about a powerful dinner scene that is accompanied by music from “Swan Lake”; after making his point the director turns it into a parody, reasoned the critic. I can’t agree; Beauvoix earns the right to be sentimental, because as a whole the film is anything but. Amazingly, that goes even for the last scene, which quotes Prior Christian’s last words, forgiving the men who are about to cut his head off.
Of Gods and Men 2010-France. 120 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Pascal Caucheteux, Etienne Comar. Directed by Xavier Beauvois. Screenplay: Xavier Beauvois, Etienne Comar. Cinematography: Caroline Champetier. Cast: Lambert Wilson (Christian), Michael Lonsdale (Luc), Olivier Rabourdin (Christophe), Philippe Laudenbach, Jacques Herlin, Loïc Pichon.
Trivia: Original title: Des hommes et des dieux.
Cannes: Grand Prize of the Jury.
Last word: “In the first version of the script, my idea was to have a long scene together where they were perhaps doing the dishes and singing. But then I thought, this might not be very interesting because they’ve been singing throughout the film and also because these are non-professional singers it might not be that interesting. Then I hit on the idea of listening to music instead, and I was listening to a lot of music through my headphones, and I came upon this excerpt from Tchaikovsky’s ‘Swan Lake’ and I suddenly had this idea in my head. I suddenly saw the whole scene and started to cry and then I couldn’t show anyone I was crying, but this was my idea that it was the music. In French, there is a play on words; the word for director where part of the word is also the word for the Last Supper. So I had this idea where Christian as Jesus with the disciples around him. It was a challenge but it just came so vividly to mind.” (Beauvois on the “Swan Lake” scene, Labuza Movies)