There aren't enough good movies about good people doing good things. There are plenty of bad ones about good people — the Patch Adamses of the world, say. But stories about right people doing the right thing are in short supply. And that isn't because such films necessarily lack gravitas: Just because your characters are good doesn't mean they can't struggle. And it doesn't mean the script has to tend toward the saccharine.
Of Gods and Men is about good people doing good things, but it is not a good movie — it's actually maybe great.
The movie is based on a true story about nine French Trappist monks at the Tibhirine monastery in civil-war-torn Algeria in the mid-1990s. The holy men are linked to a nearby village. The monks doctor the villagers, clothe them, feed them, attend their birthday parties, help them fill out paperwork — even give them advice about love.
What they don't do is proselytize. The monks do, however, study the Koran and learn about the faith of their neighbors. They have religious and political discussions with the villagers. "The world's gone mad," one villager says, referring to girls in Algeria who are killed for not wearing a veil and those in France who are the center of a storm for wearing one.
Long passages of the film are quiet and observe the monks during their daily tasks — tending gardens, praying aloud and in silence, chanting, listening to the word of God and to the newspaper account of a sports match. There is something noble about rituals being carried out by such a small group of people.
The civil war encroaches, however. Islamic terrorists battle with the Algerian army, and civilians frequently get caught in the middle. Soon enough, it becomes apparent that the monks' lives are in jeopardy if they stay. The decision to stay is not monolithic: Each monk makes his own decision to stay or go. None of them wants to be a martyr.
Christian (Lambert Wilson, Merovingian in The Matrix sequels) is the lead monk, and he must balance the mortal danger to his brothers with the eternal meaning of Christ's love. Luc (Michael Lonsdale, Drax in Moonraker) is the monastery's physician, and he feels his place is there, continuing to treat the sick and even the terrorists. Christophe (Olivier Rabourdin) is terrified and confesses, "I pray, and I hear nothing." A monk wonders, "Why is faith so bitter? Why is God so quiet?"
The film gives the audience an indelible sense of time and place. Xavier Beauvois has made a powerful film about courage and doubt, and Of Gods and Men won the Grand Prix at last year's Cannes Film Festival. There is a scene toward the end of the film, where we hear music from Swan Lake, which I won't forget when I recall the greatest scenes of the decade.
Of Gods and Men is as respectful as The Apostle about faith and as painfully relevant as The Official Story about the human toll taken by geopolitical shifts. An Algerian official blames French colonialism on the country's troubles. What else can Christian do but agree, and pray?
Opening Friday, April 22nd