Inspired by the disappearance of several French Cistercian monks from an Algerian monastery in 1996, Xavier Beauvois’ Of Gods And Men combines lite formalism and tendentious topicality in the story of a monastic order that clashes with Islamic terrorists in an unnamed Arab country.
Although they seem to be the only Christians around, the monks coexist peacefully with the locals. Michael Lonsdale’s leonine brother doles out medical care and free shoes; others help illiterate villagers fill out visa applications. But signs of unrest mount. A woman is stabbed for failing to wear her veil in public, and men with guns ambush the Croatians who help the monks with construction projects, slashing their throats to the spine. Soon enough, a group of Islamic radicals comes calling, demanding access to the monastery’s medical supplies, but leader Lambert Wilson stands fast, punching up his defense with Koranic quotes and a well-placed “Insha’Allah.” Nevertheless, the sense of impending doom lingers, coalescing when Wilson chooses the climax of Swan Lake as dinner music.
Like too much of Of Gods And Men, the Swan Lake scene lingers long after it’s made its point. As the music swells, the monks look themselves over, exchanging glances, their eyes brimming. And then they keep looking, and Beauvois keeps cutting from reaction shot to reaction shot to the point where it’s difficult to stifle a laugh. The film mistakes volume for weight, assuming that if a scene goes on long enough, viewers will get the sense it’s important. The long, wordless stretches prompt comparison with Philip Gröning’s documentary Into Great Silence. But where Silence’s longueurs conveyed the tranquil intensity of monastic life, Beauvois’ are merely long. In spite of its subject matter, the film has a scant feeling for spirituality, which mainly surfaces in the monks’ fatalist hymns. Beauvois admires the monks’ steadfastness, but doesn’t seem to understand it.
Of Gods And Men is at pains to highlight the enduring relevance of the story’s tension between the remnants of a Christian occupation and a group of radicalized Muslims, but it ultimately offers little insight into either side. The Muslims are violent and mostly silent, the monks patient and removed. The film ends with a rhetorical Hail Mary pass, a lengthy letter from Wilson’s character in which he absolves his aggressors and inexplicably labels himself complicit in the evils of the world. Not withstanding rich performances from Wilson and Lonsdale, the film never comes close to embodying that level of complexity.