OF GODS AND MEN, based on a real incident, is an engrossing consideration of the struggle for religion to exist in the modern world untainted by politics. Set in a rural Cistercian monastery with a long history in the Muslim country it serves, the film proceeds at a deliberate pace that serves to enhance the growing sense of dread in which both the monks and the local villagers live as a corrupt secular government and a religious rebel faction fight for control of the government.
There are no clichés. The monks are not naïve. The villagers are not simple. They form a close, mutually respectful, community, the one with the other, the former offering basic medical care and assistance with the trials of government bureaucracy. The latter opening their hearts and homes to the monks. Terrorist attacks that until recently took place only in cities, begin to plague the countryside and the monks, eight in number, are forced to decide whether or not to accept armed troops within their walls to protect them, and, later, whether or not to leave the country altogether when the government, unable to guarantee their safety, orders them to leave. The decision that is deeply personal for each monk, wrestling with his conscience and what his duty demand of him. That the villagers consider them an integral part of their village, and that their leaving would rip the heart from the village and from villagers is more than just a line of dialogue. It resonates with every frame of film.
Each monk is distinct, brought to life with impeccable performances of the highest refinement. Each reacts in different ways, their emotional and spiritual progress charted with neat summations as the community takes several votes about whether to stay or to go. The gentleness of spirit and the iron of resolve reside together in each of them without a trace of the relationship being mutually exclusive. There is also joy in the austerity of their monastic life filled with the beauty of silent contemplation and the harmony, literal and figurative, of singing the words of hymns that nourish their souls and make them soar. Michael Lonsdale as the medical Brother Luc has a twinkle beneath his shaggy eyebrows and a lightness in his step that belies the portly frame and the weight of his advancing years. Yet his struggle is as palpable as that of any of the others, and the way he faces his own dark night of the soul by tenderly caressing a painting speaks to a life of struggles of many kinds. Lambert Wilson as the communitys leader, Brother Christian, is of a more contemplative nature, but there is nothing placid about Christians inner turmoil about what is best for those in his charge. His is an intensity that uses the smallest gesture, bowing of head when struggling with his conscience while contemplating a landscape, the softening of the eyes when offering solace.
When the discussion turns to the very real possibility of their being killed, there is no sense of martyrdom for its own sake in the discussion. Rather, this is a decision of whether or not to live their lives as free men doing what they feel they are called to do, and not without the all too human fear of death. In this they, and the film, transcend the particulars of any one religion. Rather, it focuses on the ecumenical spark, the inclination toward the divine made manifest on earth by the desire to do good by helping all and harming none. When the terrorists finally arrive with guns drawn to demand medical help, it is not the particulars of theology that send them away abashed by their behavior. It is the example set by Brother Christian, who is not unafraid at that moment, but who calmly explains that their medic is too ill to survive the journey to the wounded men, and then goes on to quote the Koran on the way Muslims and Christians should behave to one another. When the brothers then go on to celebrate the Mass, it is more than a service, it is a sign of hope in a dark world. In contrast, the villager who bemoans his granddaughters murder on a bus for not wearing a veil, is a succinct, heart-wrenching distillation of why confusing religion with politics by the ignorant and the cynical, have made the darkness.
OF GODS AND MEN is the product of a France that tossed out its Jesuits at one point, and though the first daughter of the Catholic Church, has not had an untroubled relationship with Rome. Perhaps it is only from that sensibility that such a film at once uplifting and gut-wrenching could come.