Of Gods and Men (Des hommes et des dieux)
In the mid-nineties, Algeria was a place of great unrest. The government declared martial law after ruling elections (elections it lost) invalid. A civil war set in, between the powers that were and an Islamic insurgency deemed ‘terrorists’ (although to be fair, their favorite types of warfare warrant the title). Xavier Beauvois’s latest film Of Gods and Men examines the life of a group of Trappist monks who chose to live among an impoverished community of muslims in the Algerian countryside. While their religions differ, the monks manage to integrate into life exceptionally well, and they all become one community, relying on each other for moral and sometimes temporal support. The violence eventually reaches the calm monastery, and claims the lives of most of the monks.
But up until that point, what Beauvois manages to accomplish is quite remarkable. Despite the occasional celebration among the local villagers, the film sticks with these men, ranging in age from middle aged, to nearly dead. The film follows the methodic routine of their lives, gardening, praying, and eating. Much of the film is wordless, making any conversation between the men hold a highlighted sense of gravitas. These are good, kind men, making outbursts of anger even more notable. It’s difficult to avoid slow pacing in a film that’s very much centered around chanting of prayers, and wordlessly putting honey in jars. This will test your patience, there’s no doubt. But what Beauvois does is virtually convert you to this lifestyle, and makes you value these men and their neighbors, value this simple life they live in the name of Christ.
Of course, the nature of true stories are almost always tragic, and you may remember catching this story on CNN. In the film’s first real scene of violence, a few Croatian men have their throats slit (in an incredibly graphic manner when taking into consideration the PG-13 rating) by the Islamic terrorists. This sparks the first of several on-screen discussions about the pros and cons of fleeing Algeria, and staying. While the words are often the same, the situation and the mentalities of the men changes subtly bringing new insight into a discussion that becomes much more figurative than literal. Will staying mean death and an inappropriate quest for martyrdom? What about their neighbors who rely heavily on the Frenchmen for medical attention, and friendship? Is there even a place for the Trappist monks’ simple and unaggressive way of life in the world any more? These are all questions delicately asked by Of Gods and Men. And like the best films, the questions it poses aren’t immediately answered, and it will ultimately come down to each individual viewer to decide what it all means. Unfortunately, for these men, it ended in their deaths after being held hostage, pawns in the game between a corrupt government, and barbaric insurgents. It’s a sad story. But it’s beautiful and told brilliantly in this film that is definitely worth anyone’s time.