By Eric Kohn | Indiewire February 24, 2011 at 3:08AM
From its early scenes, "Of Gods and Men" inhabits the sacred lives of its monastic subjects. The eight monks residing in a seemingly quaint North African mountain community go through the motions of their daily prayers, the ritualistic hymns echoing monotonously throughout their hallowed chambers. Providing medical assistance and spiritual counsel to their Muslim neighbors, they inhabit an untroubled world, but the tranquility is short-lived. The monks find their harmonious existence suddenly disrupted by bloodthirsty Islamic fundamentalists, and so begins the conundrum at the heart of the movie.
Loosely based on the mysterious 1996 assassination of seven French monks in Algeria, Xavier Beauvois' understated fifth feature takes liberties with that widely scrutinized incident, but its simplistic milieu exists out of time. Ignore the precise religious context and it stands perfectly well as a restrained look at personal convictions in the face of certain death.
Despite the underlying power of its narrative, "Of Gods and Men" takes such a muted approach that it has routinely missed opportunities for raising its profile in North America. France's official submission for the Academy Awards, it did not make the short list; a rumored top contender for the Palme d'Or last year at Cannes, it lost to the flashy eccentricities of "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives" (although Beauvois won the Grand Jury Prize). The movie is so softly affecting that it can be easily brushed off in favor of more boisterous fare (part of the reason why "Incendies," another story of Middle Eastern turmoil with a heavier violence quotient and disturbing insinuations, found its way to this year's Oscars). Resolutely gentle and sad, "Of Gods and Men" works wonders as a compelling study of fate put to its greatest test, but doesn't require viewers to identify with the plight of the monks in order to sympathize with their mounting problems.
The script, co-written by Beauvois and Etienne Comar, constantly explores the monks' inner turmoil and thereby universalizes it. Led by the noble Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson), the priests engage in prolonged, weighty discussions about whether they should flee the monastery in light of the ongoing extremist threats. Pitting their beliefs against their fears, they remain a divided bunch. None doubt the reasons to stick around, but not all have the evident courage to do it. Beauvois allows this tension to become the movie's internal engine. Christian and his brethren view their predicament as the ultimate test of faith; they refuse requests from the country's government to receive either military protection or to leave. The details of that test, rather than its outcome, form the backbone of the plot and inject "Of Gods and Men" with considerable tension.
The definitive investigation into the actual deaths, John W. Kiser's 2002 "The Monks of Tibhirine," opens with the monks' funeral and probes the depths of their legacy. The film's press notes explain that, in 2009, declassified documents conveyed that the monks were accidentally killed during their time as hostages by the Algerian army. Here, the director is less interested in specifics; he wants to recreate the internal psychological strife.
In particular, Wilson conveys Christian's steadfast commitment to an abstract cause without overplaying the character's virtuousness (his only big monologue occurs in a voiceover at the very end). Unfortunately, by sticking to the monks' limited perspective, Beauvois leaves the antagonists (led by the indigent Omar, played by Abdellah Moundy) underdeveloped. Nevertheless, what the director does include grows into the quietly devastating experience of watching a lost cause reach its inevitable destination.
Beauvois has examined issues as far-reaching as drug addiction and AIDS ("Don't Forget You're Going to Die") in addition to the cop procedural "Le Petit Lieutenant," but here his style appears subdued. In fact, the movie lacks any overt style at all, save for a single scene in which the monks sit in their chambers for their personalized Last Supper, listening to the orchestra crescendo in a recording of "Swan Lake." Building to a series of rapid close-ups, this moment tests the boundaries of Beauvois' approach.
On the one hand, it's an obvious, forced gimmick -- and yet, as the music plays within the scene rather than on the soundtrack, the effect is naturalistic. That duality exists throughout "Of Gods and Men." Beauvois unearths the drama while letting events stand on their intrinsic strengths. Each time a monk contemplates his fate, Beauvois implies a deeper process taking place beneath the surface. By keeping deaths off-camera, he leaves the extent of the tragedy unknowable.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Already a box-office success in France, "Of Gods and Men" will probably play well in Sony Pictures Classics' limited release on the basis of strong reviews it has received on the festival circuit.
criticWIRE grade: A-
The trailer is on the jump.
The Sony Pictures Classics trailer for "Of Gods and Men:"