"Of Gods and Men" is, without exaggeration, one of the most beautiful films you are likely to see this year, or indeed in any other year. It is also a film that will prove difficult and challenging as it addresses major issues including what it means to have faith, the importance or otherwise of religion and the battle between Christianity and Islam. There is a stillness and quiet about this film that is as important as anything that is said or done on screen.
Telling the true story of a group of Cistercian monks in Algeria who were murdered by...either a group of Islamic fundamentalists or forces within the Algerian army depending on who you listen to or which version of the story you read, director Xavier Beauvois takes us inside the monastery, inside the community they serve and, ultimately, inside the hearts and minds of the monks themselves. Beauvois has made a film of incredible beauty but also one that never shies away from the true horror of what befell these men.
The major question that confronts the monks and that confounds the audience is whether or not they should stay even when they are made aware that to do so will mean, inevitably, their death. Is it noble and dignified? Are they martyrs? Is it the ultimate sacrifice? Or is it foolhardy, selfish and, frankly, stupid? To my mind there is nothing noble in the actions of these men; it appears to me to be absolutely at odds with the notion of Christianity and, given their position as Catholics, I wonder how what they did is any different to committing suicide? Indeed, for me the very notion of a monastic life is at odds with a belief in the God of the bible...who did, let us not forget, instruct His children to go forth, multiply and replenish the earth!
Those with more faith and belief than me may view it very differently and laud the "bravery" of the monks. They are perfectly entitled to do so but it isn't a view of what happened that I can share. However, there is no doubt that Beauvois presents the story in a clear, honest and delicate fashion. My feeling is that he himself sees something admirable in the men and this is evidenced by the films most fantastic moment; the last supper scene (as it will no doubt be remembered) when the monks gather and break bread, drink wine and contemplate their lives. With Tchaikovsky rising and roaring in the background (the only time that music is used) the camera presents each of the men in close up...beatific smiles across their lips, a serene twinkle in their eyes the sense that they are in the world but not of it is palpable.
Set against the backdrop of rising religious and political tensions in Algeria during the 1990's it is easy to see the parallels with the current situation across Europe with tensions between Islam, Christianity and secularists. Those responsible for the murders were never found and in that too there are parallels with the pursuit of those responsible for the events of 9/11. A film set inside an intimate community in a country far away and detailing events that happened 14 years ago may not, on paper, seem a film about our times but Beauvois has managed to create exactly that.