Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Of Gods and Men

Inspired by John Kiser’s nonfiction book The Monks of Tibhirine, Of Gods and Men is a moving depiction of French monks living in Algeria in the tense 1990s. This film features the darker parts of human existence, including fear and despair, and yet is more about goodness than evil.

Locals invite the monks to tea and celebrations. One monk, the amiable Luc (Michael Lonsdale), is a doctor who sees a constant stream of patients and occasionally passes out clothes as well as diagnoses. The brothers take turns gardening, sometimes pausing to appreciate the scenery. The film’s soundtrack consists solely of what the monks hear, which is mostly beautiful liturgical music.

Their peaceful life is threatened by terrorism and the legacies of French colonialism (mentioned only briefly). They debate whether they should leave and save their lives or continue to help the villagers and possibly die. This question is more difficult for some than others. One of the youngest, the middle-aged Christophe (Olivier Rabourdin), struggles with his faith. Even Christian (Lambert Wilson), the handsome and headstrong leader, has troubles, reaching out to nature in times of contemplation.

The characters have a deep love for one another, and both religious and nonreligious audiences can identify with the monks’ search for answers and fulfillment. Characters are subtly drawn and acted. The lovely countryside is shot in natural light, reflecting the monks’ inner turmoil or joy. Their simple lives are evoked in snatches rather than drawn out scenes, making the movie’s pacing slow but not tedious.

Of Gods and Men is emotional but not dramatic. Its message of forgiveness comes across as neither naïve nor patronizing, and its statements about tolerance in relation to Christianity, Islam, and religion in general are particularly timely. This uniquely lovely film is unsentimental but tender, gentle but powerful, and refreshing in every sense of the word.

French with English subtitles