If I were to describe a film about nine French Trappist monks living a devout life in a small Algerian village during the mid-1990s, you might expect some stereotypical things. And all of those things—the robes, the chanting, the hours of daily prayer and reflection, the simple living quarters of the monastery—are here. Every pre-conceived notion you've ever had about the monastic lifestyle is confirmed in Of Gods and Men, right down to the flock of sheep they tend.
And, yet, there are no caricatures in this film. In a setting that by definition requires conformity amid the daily rituals of monastery life, Of Gods and Men is a haunting and powerful true story of nine distinct men as they face the hardest decision of their lives. But more than a riveting drama, this film is a love story, and quite possibly the best you'll see on screen all year.
The monks live tucked away on a hilltop, where their daily lives revolve as much around tending to their gardens and bees as they do interacting with their neighbors in the surrounding Muslim community. Mothers and their children line up outside the monastery every morning to see the elderly doctor, Brother Luc (Michael Lonsdale), who doles out free medicine and advice, as well as the occasional piece of clothing. Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson)—the leader of the monastery—and Luc are both invited to a religious ceremony for the son of a local couple, at which their attendance doesn't so much as raise an eyebrow.
The extent to which the monks are integrated and accepted into the town of Tibhirine is surprising only in its mundaneness. The early scenes in Of Gods and Men are played out with almost no dialogue as we witness day-to-day interactions between the locals and the monks, who, it should be noted, appear to have no interest in converting their neighbors. As they see it, their calling is only to help the community, and that job description—thankfully—does not include proselytizing. It's one of the most interesting subtexts to an already layered film.
There's a calmness to these opening acts that's unnerving, and justifiably so. Trouble is brewing in Algeria, where a Civil War looms on the horizon as anti-foreigner sects of radical Islam gain footholds with increasingly violent tactics. When several Croatian workers are brutally murdered by one of these groups, life in Algeria suddenly becomes more complicated for the monks.
They are offered and refuse police and military protection from their concerned neighbors. But as the situation becomes more unsettled and dangerous, the larger dilemma among the nine Christian brothers becomes whether or not the time has come to abandon the monastery.
Of course they'll stay, you think. The monks will present a united front in their devotion to each other and their community. But the decision is not so simple, and director and writer Xavier Beauvois captures the angst and pain of such a dilemma with precision and beauty. The monks, who range in age from mid-30s to late-80s, are not single-minded religious idealists. They believe in God, of course, but carry different beliefs of what God's plan entails for them, and for the monastery. "I became a monk to live," says one brother. "Not to die a martyr."
And there is fear, felt even by those monks determined to stay and face whatever fate may come. Like Luc, who tells his brothers that "to leave is to die." It is an angst-ridden decision process, overseen by their solemn and deliberate leader Christian. Wilson plays the head monk with understated grace—this decision is not so much about what he thinks but about whether he can keep his band of brothers together. He too has his doubts, and wonders like others in the monastery if staying and potentially dying here in Algeria would serve a purpose. As the conflict intensifies around them, one local woman tells Christian, "We're the birds and you're the branch. If you go, we lose our footing."
Of Gods and Men continues at the Wilma Theatre.