This sombre and meticulously filmed effort from French director Xavier Beauvois looks at the daily lives of a group of Trappist monks living in 1990s Algeria. They grow plants, they donate medical attention to those who need it, and they sell honey. This is all pleasant enough, but probably wouldn’t be enough to sustain a two-hour-plus drama. Of course, there is more going on than the nurturing of vegetables. These monks live their lives fearing death everyday from Islamic terrorists. For years they have lived in peaceful harmony with the Muslim society that is on their doorstep, but now each day could be their last.
The film adopts an incredibly slow pace in order to show the gentle nature of these monks and the calmness of their lifestyle. This is understandable, and although it may aggravate more impatient viewers, the time taken in telling the story of this intense community struck me as necessary rather than annoyingly indulgent.
The biggest weakness of the film, although one which some may consider a strength, is the refusal of the narrative to deal with the dangers Christianity can pose. Islamic terrorism is rightfully portrayed as heinous; a condemnable way of expressing one’s faith compared to the peaceful Monks. But the sense of kindness and innocence that is handed to Christianity may leave an odd taste in the mouth for some viewers. Of course, these Monks are harmless enough (or they appear to be), and they have a commendable knowledge of the religion, Islam, that poses a daily threat to them. However, a film that uncritically portrays the Christian faith as that of a peaceful practice free from blame, hate, discrimination or violence runs the risk of putting forward an argument as unbalanced and dangerous as the threat that is being condemned.
It could also be argued that this film is concerned with people, not faith. The portrayal of the men who have given their life to God is a very human and affecting one, focusing on their devotion of love and peace while in the surrounding areas vicious violence is being dealt out at the hand of Muslim fundamentalists.
It is also commendable that there is a strong differentiation between the Muslim community which surrounds the Monks’ residence and the aforementioned violent fundamentalists. We are reminded throughout the film that the terrorists distort the teachings of Islam, and the majority of the Muslim community depicted here is tolerant and friendly towards Christians. This is a detail that could, in the hands of more sensational filmmakers, have been excised, but thankfully here this is not the case.
Teachings of forbearance and good will are strongly emphasised in the film, particularly in the depiction of the monks’ devotion to studying other religions. At one point, during the first invasion of their home on Christmas Eve, the head of the monastery (played superbly by Lambert Wilson) convinces a group of terrorists to leave in peace by quoting a passage of the Koran which talks of tolerance towards Christians. It is a tense and brilliantly realised moment, where the two parties, divided by faith, are united by an understanding of acceptance.
There are times when the film risks letting its observations of the Monks develop into worship. There is a scene, clearly intended to parallel the Last Supper, where all of the men sit round a table listening to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. In some ways it is a deeply moving scene, but adds to the aggrandising of these men while continuing the emphasis on their childish innocence. Some may find this uplifting, others will find it patronising and troubling. Whatever you take from it, it is an undoubtedly effective and emotive moment.
As a detached examination of the lives of Trappist Monks, this film could have been a masterpiece. But it slowly becomes clear that we are being invited to worship and admire these men as much as the filmmakers do. Their determination in not to leave their area of worship in spite of the threat to their personal safety is interesting and at times compelling, but the way it is presented strays a little too close to an adoration of martyrdom. Moving and superbly put together, using brilliant photography and excellent acting, this is an odd film and a strange, challenging viewing experience.
Of Gods and Men (2010) is available now on Blu-ray disc and DVD from Artificial Eye, Certificate 15.