CANNES: French director Xavier Beauvois gives us one of the strongest competition entries from France in several years with Of Gods and Men. The film is based on the true story of seven French Catholics monks in Tibhirine, Algeria who were kidnapped and killed by Islamic terrorists. The monks become martyrs and the film examines their selflessness and piety. It also tackles the theme of the conflict between Islam and Christianity in a thoughtful way.
Beauvois made his name as one of France's edgier directors with films like his Le Petit Lieutenant and Don't Forget You're Going to Die leaving us unprepared for this much quieter and more mature work. But while the film is heavy with the virtuous intent of the monks and their dedication to their beliefs it still wields an emotional power in a subtle and understated way.
The film is set in a Cistercian monastery in north Africa where the eight monks live alongside the local Muslim community giving both spiritual and practical care. While deeply holding to their Christian beliefs they also respect the Koran and the Islamic culture around them. But the 1990's is a time of great unrest in the region and the countryside around them is increasingly exploding into violence. The monks become aware of the danger of their position as Christian foreigners in this Islamic country.
The local mayor concerned for their safety presses them to leave but the monks after much soul-searching understand that this would be a negation of their beliefs. Rather than focus on the violence that is around the monks Beauvois slowly builds up a picture of their lives, their faith and their closeness to God, the community and the countryside around them. There are many scenes of quite beauty as we get a feel for the rhythm of their lives and the deep connection to each other.
In our post 9/11 world with the ongoing and increasing violence in the name of religious fundamentalism the film is a timely in its topic of the common respect and humanity between Christian and Islamic cultures that the monks embody.
Despite the violent topic of the film which ends in the slaughter of seven (one escaped by hiding under the bed) of the eight monks when negotiations by the authorities to rescue them breakdown there is little violence or sensationalism in the film. Even the ending shows an admirable restraint. Beauvois gives us a thoughtful and mature film that seeks to reconcile faiths and belief in the goodness of mankind over evil even as the monks triumph over death by their saintliness.
DES HOMMES ET DES DIEUX (OF GODS AND MEN) directed by Xavier Beauvois
Cast: Jean-Marie FRIN - Paul
Jacques HERLIN - Amédée
Philippe LAUDENBACH - Célestin
Michael LONSDALE - Luc
Xavier MALY - Michel
Loïc PICHON - Jean-Pierre
Olivier RABOURDIN - Christophe
Lambert WILSON - Christian