Movies: Des Hommes et des Dieux * * * * *
(15A, limited release)
The subject of Xavier Beauvois' film makes it sound grim. In 1996, seven Trappist monks from a remote monastery in the Atlas Mountains got caught up in the bitterness and bloodshed of the Algerian Civil War.
They became pawns in a dangerous game played out between Muslim fundamentalists and government security forces. Of Gods and Men is based on that incident, but is less a film about violence than the mystery of faith.
The Trappists are embedded in the lives of the mountain community that surrounds them: they help with reading, offer legal advice and medical assistance (one of the monks, played by the excellent Michael Lonsdale, is a doctor) and insist on no proselytising quid pro quos.
They live simply and pose no threat to anyone. But outside the crumbling monastery walls, the mood in the country is darkening, and when local European workers are beheaded by Islamic rebels, the monks are visited by a government official who tells them their safety can no longer be guaranteed.
Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson) leads the monks, and after they are visited and threatened by armed insurgents, a monastery meeting is called. Christian feels that the monks would be failing in their pastoral mission if they abandoned the monastery, and most, but not all of the monks, agree with him.
Beauvois' film unfolds slowly but beguilingly, and scenes of rural splendour are juxtaposed with a subtle, rising tension. The Atlas Mountains are photographed with loving care, and Beauvois' camera patiently follows the monks as they go about their soothing daily tasks. But ultimately Of Gods and Men is preoccupied with the challenge -- and power -- of religious faith.
Beavois has chosen his actors well, and as the film reaches its climax he assembles them for a series of scenes that evoke the Bible and, specifically, the Last Supper.
In the end, the monks seem a lot closer to God than the men who come to take them.