Watching Xavier Beauvois's extraordinary film Of Gods and Men (Des hommes et des dieux), I found myself thinking of Leon Bloy's oft-quoted observation that "any Christian who is not a hero is a pig." Bloy's words are a harsh reminder that Christ asked a lot of his followers—in fact, he asked everything. "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me," said the Son of Man. Poverty, chastity, charity, humility, doing unto others, turning the other cheek, and the real possibility of a violent and horrible death: he must have known it would be a tough sell. Two thousand odd years after his birth, Christ's message is still a lot more radical, and his example far more demanding, than most nominal Christians are willing to acknowledge.
It's hard to think of a film that better explores the question of what it would mean to truly live a Christian life than Of Gods and Men. Loosely based on a 1996 incident in Algeria, the film imagines the last few months of a small community of French Cistercian-Trappist monks caught between both sides of the Algerian Civil War. Facing a threat that grows, throughout the film, from probable to inevitable, these eight men must decide whether to stay and lose their lives, or to flee and abandon their vocation. Whether you consider yourself a believer or not—and, for the record, I do not—the result is a profoundly beautiful and powerfully gripping drama about faith, conviction, and quiet, humble courage.
As the film begins, the Monastere de l'Atlas has existed for generations in harmony with the poverty-stricken Muslim village around it. The monks provide essential medical care and other charitable services to the villagers, sell their honey and jam in the marketplace, enjoy respectful friendships with the local imans, and attend Muslim celebrations with their neighbors. Though one local government official sees the monastery as a troubling relic of French colonialism, the monks are not there to proselytize or evangelize: they are there to serve, and it's made clear that the community relies on them. When the brothers describe themselves as birds on a tree branch, deciding whether to stay or to take flight, one villager tells them, "We are the birds. You are the branch."
But the violent acts of Islamic extremists are escalating, and all foreigners are increasingly at risk. After a group of Croatian workers in the village are brutally murdered by guerillas led by Ali Fayattia (Farid Larbi), a local government official suggests the monks should either flee Algeria or accept military protection—ideas that the monastery's Prior, Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson), rejects out of hand. "And if they come here?" asks another monk. "We lie down and die?" That, Brother Christian admits, is the risk. "We were called to live here, in this country, among these people, who are also afraid," he tells his brothers.
When Fayattia and his men show up at the gates on Christmas Eve—pointing their guns and demanding medical supplies—Christian meets them with stern, polite refusal. It is a tense, potentially explosive scene, and Wilson's performance is extraordinary: he is terrified, and fully aware of his powerlessness, but determined to stand his ground in a way that is neither naïve nor arrogant. "You have no choice!" Fayattia tells him. "Yes, I do," Christian says sadly. The rest goes unsaid, but Christian's choice is to live—and, if necessary, die—according to the teachings of the man whose birth they celebrate that night.
Wilson's Brother Christian is the film's moral center, but veteran actor Michael Lonsdale's Brother Luc is its heart. As the monastery's kindly and overworked medic, Luc sees scores of villagers every day, providing health care, advice, and the occasional pair of free shoes. In his 80s, and in poor health himself, Brother Luc bears with good humor the strongest portion of the monastery's burden. (As a subtle indicator of his workload, Luc is usually absent from the chapel scenes that punctuate the film.) Luc seems quite content with the knowledge that he will work himself to death doing this uncelebrated work, and has no regrets about the life he has chosen. Asked by a young Muslim girl how it feels to fall in love, Luc delivers an eloquent description that shows he is no stranger to earthly love. Has he ever been in love himself, she asks? Yes, several times, he answers. "And then I encountered another love, even greater. And I answered that love."
Faith is not a subject that is usually well served by film, and is most often dealt with naively, with overly-simplified speeches and beatific imagery. Of Gods and Men instead grapples with the question of faith as a living, practical thing, complex and immediate and relevant to the real world. One of the qualities that makes the filmso gripping is that the spiritual and the practical are, for these men, one and the same; their faith defines every aspect of their existence. They are not saints, they have no desire to be martyrs, and they are not naïve. They know what staying means, and they have no illusions that God will protect them. They also harbor no hope that their lives—or their deaths—will ultimately serve any greater purpose beyond the humble work they have been doing all their lives. But they have, literally, given those lives to Christ, and they believe he has called them to this place, to do this work, and to serve these people. To flee now—even to save themselves—would be to take those lives back, and render meaningless who they are.
The film is mercifully short on phony speeches and agonized theology, but the larger questions and challenges of faith are ever-present. The youngest monk, Brother Christophe (Olivier Rabourdin), struggles most obviously with his slipping faith, but even among the older, more resigned brothers, passing references are made to the lives unlived, the loves unpursued, the families they left behind or never had. And, always, the doubt intrinsic in all faith is evident in the prayers of the monks, and in the songs they sing. "Because he is with us in this time of violence," they sing, "let us not dream that he is everywhere, other than where we die." Few films capture as well the way faith means living with doubt, and the difficulties of marrying Christ's message to the harsh realities of the real world.
Some viewers may be bored by Of Gods and Men, but those who surrender to its quieter rhythms will be enthralled. It is one of the quietest films I've ever seen, yet also one of the most suspenseful. It is an intelligent exploration of faith, yet refrains from sermonizing and false canonization of its heroes. It is not flashy film-making, but it is both beautiful to look at and a remarkable testament to the visual power of cinema. Beauvois knows the power of lingering on a single human face, and his cast is filled with fascinating faces that convey the incredible emotional complexity of these largely silent men. Towards the end of the film there is a scene where the monks gather for dinner, and Brother Luc—with a bit of mischief in his eyes—wordlessly produces a few bottles of wine and a tape of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. It is an appropriately humble bit of indulgence for what they all know may turn out to be their last meal, but Beauvois and his extraordinary cast turn it into an unforgettably moving climax. As the music plays, the camera circles the table to linger several times on each man's face, and we see each of them process the beauty of the music, the closeness and camaraderie of their brothers, the sadness and celebration of their lives, their terror and acceptance of their fates. It is an extraordinary scene, not transformative but all-encompassing, with fear and resignation, faith and doubt, sadness and the most exquisite joy all existing simultaneously on their faces. (Life, in other words, in all its sublime richness and uncertainty.)
Of Gods and Men has its faults, particularly in its final act, which could probably have ended one or two scenes before it does. And the film has been criticized in some circles for siding too strongly with the Christians, and for failing to deal sufficiently with the complexities of the political situation in Algeria. These are fair observations, but ultimately miss the point. While he never reduces his story to a simple parable, Beauvois is interested less in exploring the specific religious or political facts of this situation, and more in discovering what it means to embrace powerlessness in an environment where everyone is struggling for power. We've seen stories before where passive resistance becomes power, but Of Gods and Men explores Christ's charge to his followers—expressed in a unattributed essay Brother Luc reads aloud at dinner–to "create with others relationships not based in power." As the passage concludes, and as Of Gods and Men testifies, to embrace such powerlessness "is neither passivity nor resignation; it requires great courage."