In this bleak light, faith has never felt so hopeless and yet so precious.
Set in the copper foothills of the Atlas Mountains in northern Algeria, Of Gods and Men follows a French Cistercian brotherhood that live by the earth and die by the word of God. Civil war has ravaged the country, but throughout the chaos this holy order has stood firm, selflessly offering aid and sanctuary to the Muslim villagers who till the cracked clay beyond the grounds of the Tibhirine monastery. It’s a delicate harmony – one that’s about to be broken in devastating fashion.
From the first communal hymn, it’s clear that director Xavier Beauvois is well versed in the ideologies of monastic life. Authenticity is paramount, and as such Beauvois exhibits his protagonists’ beliefs intimately and sincerely. It’s a bold move that could have backfired; turning off viewers made uncomfortable by the slightest whiff of religious salutation. And yet Beauvois’ aim is not to sanctify this altruistic brood. For all the romanticism in the displays of evensong and strolls through sun-bleached olive groves, the meat and gristle of this harrowing true story are never obscured.
From the intrusion of cutthroat fundamentalists – come to spill blood and pollute the air with fear in the name of another divine father – to the humbling Last Supper scene, Beauvois captures the gravity of the monks’ sacrifice without compromise. This is, however, subjective filmmaking at its most flagrant: our brethren’s good deeds are starkly juxtaposed to the shrieking irrationality of their AK-waving foe. Beauvois’ conviction means there is never a grey area when it comes to picking sides.
Enabling this is Lambert Wilson’s Abbot Christian, who serves as ambassador, educator and peacemaker. But Christian’s efforts to ward off the guerrillas are in vain. As a tired remnant of post-colonialism, he is the last good shepherd in a land scarred by the hands of men. In this bleak light, faith has never felt so hopeless and yet so precious.
Picked up the Grand Prix in Cannes.
Moves at its own pace, luring you in before delivering an ice-cold hammer-blow of an ending.
A little narrow in its scope, but cinematically Of Gods and Men is near faultless.