Of Gods and Men - Spiritual French drama about faith under fire

3rd December 2010

Loosely based on a real-life tragedy French drama of Gods and Men captures the spirit of a monastery in North Africa and shapes it into something altogether more meaningful. Mike McCahil reflects upon this study of faith under fire.

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Xavier Beauvois' new drama takes a senseless real-life atrocity – the slaughter of seven Cistercian monks in Algeria in 1996 - and shapes it into something altogether more meaningful: a philosophical meditation on the nature of true faith, and grace (in all senses of the word) under pressure.

One of these seven will be given cause to turn to Pascal's Pensées, therein finding the axiom "Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction". Yet Beauvois' project over these two hours is to demonstrate how the reverse is just as easily true: that religious conviction can equally, in certain circumstances, engender acts of the utmost selflessness.

These monks are by no means silent recluses; rather, they're defined by the extent to which they've become integrated into their North African surrounds. In early scenes, we see the venerable Brother Luc (the ever-watchable Michel Lonsdale) dispensing medical and romantic wisdom to the locals, while his confreres take the monastery's own-brand honey to market. Together, they attend an Islamist prayer meeting: as the group's nominal leader, the aptly named Christian (Lambert Wilson) underlines during his own prayer rituals, "we make no distinction between any of His messengers".

Fundamentalist activity has, however, come to creep ever closer. Reports filter through of a schoolgirl knifed for not wearing the hijab, an imam shot down for being too liberal in his teachings. Then the gunmen themselves arrive at the monastery, none too enlightened ("Are you the Pope?," one of the younger interlopers asks the first monk he sees), but deadly keen to mark their territory.

We've seen several monastic items upon our screens of late – the documentaries Into Great Silence and No Greater Love, plus the feature In Memory of Me - each one attempting to make compelling such devotion as perhaps now might seem alien or exotic to the majority of cinemagoers. Yet Beauvois and co-writer Etienne Comar are less interested in the monks' chosen path than in the character of these men.

For all the hosts and cassocks, its unavoidable iconography, Of Gods and Men plays equally well as a secular study of individuals reacting to a desperate situation: Wilson's nervy Christian is forced to weigh his principles against the needs of those whose lives and souls he's been entrusted with; Lonsdale's Luc, who claims to have fought both the Nazis and the Devil, is all bluff stoicism masking growing fatigue; the tortured Christophe (Olivier Rabourdin) cries out for salvation in the night.

As in Claire DenisWhite Material, we come to watch a state of siege playing out, though here the monks' decision to stay is less a statement of defiant independence than a test of collective faith. These brothers stand together, and as such, it's yet another French film to be concerned at an essential level with the idea of community.

Throughout, Beauvois groups the monks in spare, unflashy tableaux, the one exception being during a last supper, in which Brother Luc busts out the communion wine and - to the strains of Swan Lake - the reality of what's likely to happen to them over the coming hours finally hits home. It isn’t just numerical coincidence that makes one recall the heroism located in the last reel of, say, The Magnificent Seven.

In its own austere fashion, the film serves as a very fine, highly affecting tribute. Through such moments as these, through the superlative ensemble performances, these monks live on. The movie gods, as ever, have the last laugh.

Of Gods and Men is released in UK cinemas on Friday 3rd December