Of Gods and Men
By Andrew Welch
March 29, 2011
Finding the right words to describe Xavier Beauvois’ Of Gods and Men is more than merely difficult—it is almost impossible. What Beauvois and his cast and crew have created is not just a masterpiece of cinematic realism; it is that rare work of art that portrays the Christian faith in all of its beauty, mystery and complexity. It is, dare I say it, inspired.
Unfortunately, it’s not likely to find a large audience here in America, either because of our seemingly ingrained ambivalence toward world cinema, or because it refuses to preach to the choir in the way its distant cousins from the Christian film industry do. But it should be seen, and by every person who dares darken the sanctuary doorway on Sunday morning. It is important, with a capital I.
What I don’t mean to imply is that it’s pretentious, which is usually what so-called “important” movies are. Instead, I mean that, in both form and content, it is a challenge to the status quo. Not only does it ask us to reexamine the strength of our faith, it also demands that we reconsider our Western fears about Islam, as well as our ideas of what a “faith-based” movie should look like.
Of Gods and Men is not faith-based film in the sense that it wants to convert anyone. It is, however, faith-based in the sense that it is all about faith, specifically about putting your life in Christ’s hands with no thought for whether you live or die. In that sense, it is also a movie about great courage and humility.
The story centers on seven Trappist monks living within a Muslim hamlet in Algeria. Despite the differences that exist between them and their neighbors, though, they are not strangers in a strange land. Rather, they are a part of the community and are respected as much by the village’s elders as they are by its women and children. In short, it is a picture of what it means to coexist.
This idyllic life is disrupted when a group of extremists begins murdering innocent civilians. Fearing that they could be next, the monks begin to wonder, should they stay and risk death, or seek out a monastery in a safer place?
For some, the answer is clear. Leaving would not only mean giving up on their calling, which has as much to do with their Muslim neighbors as it does with communion and the Lord’s Prayer, but it would also lead to a death of another kind—one that robs the spirit of peace and turns it into a vagabond.
Others, however, are not so sure. “I became a monk to live, not to die,” one says, unaware of the irony of his own words.
And so the question that lies at the heart of Of Gods and Men is a simple one: will they, or won’t they? And yet, to reduce the movie to nothing more than a simple question completely ignores the gravity of the monks’ struggle. What’s more, because it’s a true story, and because we can know their fates before we even enter the theater, their struggle becomes even more powerful. Forget the muscle-bound figures of the comic book genre; these men are the true heroes. They become iconic before our very eyes, each one of them, from the starry-eyed young Christophe (Olivier Rabourdin), whose romantic notions about faith nearly crumble before the threat of death, to the elderly Luc (Michael Lonsdale), whose unwavering trust in Christ inspires respect. But none more so than Christian (Lambert Wilson), the leader of the pack, who, in front of the other men, wears a face of grim resolve, even as he expresses doubt in solitude.
Part of what contributes to Of Gods and Men’s power is its quiet, meditative pace. Beauvois and cinematographer Caroline Champetier use stationary camera set-ups and graceful tracking shots to communicate the monks’ thoughtful nature, resulting in a harmony between form and subject that is missing in most domestic productions, indie or mainstream.
This is not a call for directors everywhere to give up their love of clipped editing and frenzied action, only a call for them to reconsider what their movies are about and to find ways of representing those ideas visually. Too often, it is the cramped close-up that rules in the movie theater. Filmmakers should, instead, let their movies breathe. It’s that sense of space and time that gives cinema its lifelike feel, and Beauvois’ willingness to let his camera linger pays off in exactly this sense. When the screen fades to black and the credits begin to roll, we feel less like we’ve watched a movie and more like we’ve experienced something shockingly real.
In the same way, the performances of Wilson, Lonsdale, Rabourdin and the rest feel too natural to be called performances. It helps that we Americans have never seen most of these faces before. Because we know them as actors only instead of stars, we aren’t burdened by a half-conscious awareness of our favorite Hollywood personality. Instead, we can give our minds over completely and become lost in the richness of talent on display.
Such an attitude is what Beauvois’ film deserves. Leave your cell phone and all other distractions at home if you have to. Of Gods and Men is a landmark film. It can show you what movies have the power to be, just as it can show you what faith in its most potent form can do to ordinary men who have discovered what it means to die, what it means to live.
Andrew Welch lives in Texas and has written for RELEVANT and Books & Culture.