Early on in Xavier Beauvois' film
Of Gods and Men (aka Des Hommes et des Dieux), a handful of monks attend a blessing for a young Muslim boy in which the imam offers a prayer that, in its praise of God, includes the words, "we make no division between any one of His messengers." Beauvois' story concerns eight men who clearly follow this edict, even though they've committed their lives to Jesus Christ. However, they live in a world where religious, political, and social divisions not only exist, they've taken on a deadly level of consequence, and Of Gods and Men is a moving and thoughtful study of how faith, courage, and responsibility cross paths in times of crisis. Of Gods and Men takes place in Algeria in the mid-'90s, where eight French monks live in a small monastery in a village high in the mountains. The men are deeply devoted to their Catholic faith, and we often see them worshiping through song and prayer as well as studying and discussing the word of God. But it's immediately evident that they see their mission is to serve, not to convert, their Muslim neighbors. The men are clearly familiar with the fine points of the Koran, and respect the faith of those around them. The monastery operates a modest medical clinic, where they serve the women and children of the community, and they offer a variety of counseling and education services to those in need. However, their community is falling into chaos; a Muslim extremist group has taken root, and while some of the town leaders question if the militants truly understand the lessons of the Koran, the extremists are willing to back up their beliefs with violence, and they want all the people they consider outsiders and sinners banished from the village. The military offers protection to the monks, yet their leader, Christian ( Lambert Wilson), immediately rejects the idea, not wanting to create a division between himself and the community. Not all of the brothers agree with him on this point, but as tensions increase after the extremists murder a group of foreign laborers, the monks gradually become committed to the notion that their duty is to serve and they must not be swayed by threats or the possibility of danger. This decision isn't a simple one, though, especially after the Algerian state department firmly asks them to return to France, or as several terrorists arrive at the monastery late one evening demanding medicine and medical care. Although Of Gods and Men is a film full of drama, it's refreshingly low on histrionics. Filmmaker Xavier Beauvois has crafted a story full of life-and-death situations and matters of profound faith, but he's set them within the framework of eight men who live their lives in labor and quiet contemplation, and he wrings a great deal of emotion out of simple circumstances. Of Gods and Men was inspired by the true story of eight French monks kidnapped by Algerian terrorists in 1996, and while Beauvois builds a credible amount of suspense, after a certain point the fate of the brothers seems inevitable; what makes this story compelling is how the men react to their circumstances -- some with fear, some with grim resignation, many with the simple but firm belief that it is their duty to serve and obey their call and that all else is of minimal importance. While Lambert Wilson as Christian, the group's leader (he generally seems more like the first among equals), and Michael Lonsdale as Luc, the aging and sweetly gruff doctor of the group, stand out in the cast, this is very much an ensemble piece, with each of the eight monks playing a vital role, and the cast and Beauvois have made that rare film about faith that takes the rituals of worship seriously. The many sequences in which the monks sing and pray as a group are handled with an austere care that serves them well, and the film also makes clear that the lives of these monks are filled with hard work as well as contemplation. The movie concerns itself only briefly with the violence of the terrorists, yet it does so in no uncertain terms, and while movies often try to paint heroism and courage in stark "us-vs.-them" terms, Of Gods and Men doesn't shy away from the (perfectly reasonable) fear and doubt that fills even the strongest of the eight monks. In doing so, Beauvois makes his men of God seem all the more human, and their actions all the more inspiring for it. Of Gods and Men is a film that follows a careful and deliberate pace, as befits its subject, but for those with the patience to let it unfold on its own terms, it's a remarkable and deeply moving work that deals with faith and humanity with an intelligence not often seen onscreen.
All Movie Guide - Mark Deming