Of Gods And Men (Des Hommes Et Des Dieux)
‘It goes beyond religion: the film is about men,’ is how French writer-director Xavier Beauvois has described his serenely controlled drama Of Gods and Men. Inspired by real-life events from the mid-1990s, it chronicles the experiences of a group of French Cistercian monks, who find themselves fatefully caught up in a civil war unfolding in an unnamed North African country. The ever-deteriorating security situation means that they are urged by both the civilian and military authorities and by Islamic militants to flee their monastery. But should they abandon their mission or is it their duty to continue serving the local population, whatever the risks to their own safety? As one of their number explains to a villager, ‘We are like birds on a branch, not sure whether we should fly away.’ To which the person replies that the monks themselves form the tree, which protects the community from fanatics.
Rather than focusing on the abduction and killings of his subjects, Beauvois concentrates on the months leading up to their disappearance. He patiently immerses us in their daily rituals and tasks and their spiritual dilemmas. Their mission is not to proselytise on behalf of their Catholic faith. Instead, led by their abbot Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson), they actively engage with the local community, by running a free medical clinic and taking part in Muslim celebrations.
Acted with powerful understatement by its ensemble cast, Of Gods and Men is also masterfully photographed by cinematographer Caroline Champetier. The interior scenes mainly rely on static, deep-focus takes, which allow us to adjust to the rhythms of the religious order, whilst elegant tracking shots convey the epic quality of the surrounding landscapes. And the climactic, dialogue-free ‘last supper’ sequence, in which the camera passes over the faces of the doomed monks as they share red wine and listen to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake is almost unbearably poignant.
GFT, Glasgow & Filmhouse, Edinburgh from Fri 3 Dec.