Should They Stay or Should They Go?
One part speculative historical fiction and two parts character sanctification, Of Gods and Men covers a 1996 event, when a group of French Trappist monks from a monastery in Algeria were abducted by Islamic fundamentalist terrorists. News of the event focused on the aftermath, but this film, directed by Xavier Beauvois, deals with the time before the kidnapping, when violent groups began to encroach upon the peaceful community.
The film is colored by an idealistic outlook made believable through unhurried depictions of daily life and a sober presentation of its characters. The monks, led by Christian (Lambert Wilson), have long been an accepted part of the Islamic Algerian community in which they reside; they provide medical facilities and share in the local work, support, and celebrations. Within the monastery, the monks maintain their discipline of prayers and chants. This heartwarming example of human harmony is then abruptly juxtaposed by the threats introduced by the external militants, who bring warlike activities that certainly endanger the monks' very lives. Religion is thus shown in its two extremes: as the instrument of peace and understanding, and as the justification for intolerance and murder.
The bulk of the film involves the monks' pressing dilemma: should they stay or should they go? But by the time the set up for this scenario has been completed, the savvy audience knows there's only one way it can go. The group of seven monks, plus one doctor, are asked to vote on the decision, and naturally some of them are very frightened. But this is a story about strength derived from faith, is it not? And though it's set to show the formation of the decision as something compelling, the movie's direction and point-of-view are far too evident to make this so.
(Minor SPOILER alert here)
The movie shows its hand in a penultimate scene that essentially depicts the group's last supper, scored by the sounds of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, replete with close-ups of their faces, tears welling in their eyes. Of Gods and Men wants the good kind of religious conviction to move us, and the wrong kind to enrage us, so it plays to our instincts for righteousness, spotlights the obvious, and confirms without really challenging our readily held beliefs about the nobility of selflessness and sacrifice.
(Released by Sony Pictures Classics and rated "PG-13" for a momentary scene of startling wartime violence, some disturbing images and brief language.)
Review also posted at www.windowtothemovies.com.