Based on the true events that occurred at a Trappist monastery in Algeria in 1996, Of Gods and Men focuses on a group of monks in the period before they are massacred at the hands of an Islamic group.
Despite the potentially sensationalist and somewhat hot button subject matter, Of Gods and Men is a very sombre and languid affair. Tension bubbles beneath the surface and the characters’ situation becomes increasingly desperate but the pace and mood of the film remains incredibly calm and measured. This could be seen as cause for complaint or celebration depending on one’s appreciation of this approach. It has led to complaints that the film is oscar bait and too worthy, arguments that are admittedly hard to ignore but the film for the most part does a lot to transcend this analysis.
At the centre of the group of monks is the (un)fortunately named Abbot, Christian. The character of Christian, played by Lambert Wilson, is a commanding presence but never overbearing and it is clear that it is his intelligence of thoughtfulness that has led him to the position he currently holds. Seemingly as well versed in the Bible as the Koran, it is his understanding and appreciation of others beliefs that aids the monks and a well placed Koran quotation even helps them out of a tricky situation at one point. This understanding is sadly lacking elsewhere though and the political/religious disquiet in Algeria is inescapable even for these remote monks. One area where the film does perhaps suffer though is in the way it overly venerates the monks. Although director Xavier Beauvois never goes as far as presenting the monks as saintly martyrs, the film is admittedly only a hair’s breadth away from this at times.
The carefully composed and calm tone and pacing of the film works effectively to absorb the audience into the insular world of these monks and subtle shifts in the editing and shot composition accentuate the developments in the story and the arcs of the individual characters. Caroline Champetier’s exquisite cinematography is particularly impressive but rather than merely being a sumptuous spectacle it services the story throughout.
This is most obvious in the ‘last supper’ sequence that is already one of the most discussed sequences in the film. It is perhaps easy to write this off as stunt cinematography designed to elicit praise for its beauty but it is a scene that works so effectively to benefit the story and characterisation that its impact should not be ignored. As the monks sit down for dinner, the charismatic Luc (Michael Lonsdale) brings out bottles of wine and plays a cassette of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. As the monks listen and enjoy the food and wine the camera moves in for intimate close ups and slowly pans between the characters. The music soars and their eyes fill with tears not just for the beauty of the moment but the sad inevitably of what is to come. As an audience we are also more than aware of the fate that awaits them. This scene, and much of the film, is as chilling as it is beautiful.
Of Gods and Men will be released in the UK by Artificial Eye on the 3rd of December.