IT IS 1996, and Algeria is in the throes of a decade-long civil war. Hidden in the rolling green hills, Islamic militants grow bolder. They carry AK-47s, but prefer to slit throats. In the middle of these hills rests a walled monastery. Inside, a group of French Catholic monks find themselves caught in the storm of physical and theological struggle.
Were it not for the studied framing, I might've mistaken Of Gods and Men for a documentary—the film is intensely devoted to realism, and it's based on a true story that still resonates in Algerian society.
Directed by Xavier Beauvois, the French-made film is wholly without frills. There is no music, save for hymns sung by the monks themselves. Indeed, Of Gods and Men is monk-like in its austerity, conviction, and reverence. It is a small film of big ides.
Often in silence, these eight monks go about their daily routines and rituals in near-real time: They chop wood, tend to the gardens, comfort the locals, and spend evenings parked quietly at their desks, poring over religious texts. There's a doctor in the group who runs a free clinic. But alongside the impoverished villagers, militants are also in need.
The monks range from able-bodied 40-year-olds to near-feeble octogenarians. As such, aging is intertwined with meditations on peace, war, love, devotion, and faith. From Christian, played by the steely eyed Lambert Wilson, to the charming doctor, Luc (Michael Lonsdale), all are supremely believable. And they must be—in a pensive, lingering solitude, the Beauvois' camera captures even the men's slightest feelings and ponderings.
The drama of Of Gods and Men is deeply cerebral. Convinced it's only a matter of time before the monks become victims of the clash, a prefect urges them to leave. The monks struggle with the meaning of death in the light of piety, and through the film's immersion and deliberate pacing, we not only come to understand these men and their convictions, but become one of them.