By Ann Hornaday
Friday, March 18, 2011; 12:55 PM
"Of Gods and Men" begins in silence, which is appropriate for a film that so poetically evokes and honors the contemplative spiritual life. Inspired by real-life events at a Cistercian monastery in Algeria in the 1990s, Xavier Beauvois's haunting, exquisitely crafted film achieves a flawless balance between taut, truth-based contemporary drama and the timeless question of spiritual commitment and obedience.
In a quiet, sun-dappled patch of North Africa, a community of Roman Catholic monks pursues the ancient existence inspired by Saint Benedict, laboring in their garden and among their beehives, praying and chanting the Psalms, studying in silence and living in peaceful coexistence with the Muslim villagers nearby. The relationship thrives on mutual trust and support: The brothers regularly attend Muslim celebrations in the village, while its inhabitants count on the brothers for medical care and neighborly favors.
But outside this Edenic existence the world is changing, as religious extremists seek to challenge Algeria's corrupt government and begin to terrorize their fellow Muslims (starting with girls who aren't wearing hijabs). A local official pleads with the brothers to leave for their own safety, but the community is riven by dissent and self-doubt. Would leaving be an abdication of their spiritual vows? Would staying be tantamount to, as one brother puts it, collective suicide? What do they owe their neighbors, what do they owe God and are they the same thing?
These are but a few of the myriad meaningful questions raised in "Of Gods and Men," which features an ensemble of accomplished French actors, including Lambert Wilson as the monastery's leader, Christian, and Michael Lonsdale as the elderly doctor, Brother Luc. A life that could otherwise be treated with condescension or exoticism instead comes to palpable life as the protagonists wrestle with the most profound theological questions, invested with life-and-death stakes within a volatile political landscape. Thanks to the actors' refusal to give in to cheap sentiment, their characters' devotion to principles of hospitality and generosity never comes off as naivete.
Beauvois takes his time limning the daily rhythms of the monastery, lingering on its most lyrical and sensuous moments, so that when violence finally reaches its gates the effect is all the more chilling. "Of Gods and Men" tells its story simply, without showy fanfare, but it still manages to convey moments of startling, carefully composed beauty: One tableau of the monks, framed by a kitchen pass-through, would be a home in any survey of religious painting. The next scene, of a last supper set to strains of Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake," represents a rare instance of heightened emotionalism.
As a retelling of the actual events, which ended tragically in 1996, "Of Gods and Men" leaves its cause open-ended. (The film suggests that the monks felt as threatened by the Algerian army as by armed Islamic factions.) But as a study in discipline, discernment and duty, the film benefits from the courage of its convictions. Viewers will certainly agonize with the brothers as they come to their fateful decision, but they're just as sure to derive inspiration from Beauvois's sensitive, aesthetically textured portrait of love at its most transcendent and transformative.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains a momentary scene of startling wartime violence, some disturbing images and brief profanity. In French with English subtitles. 120 minutes.