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Movie Review: Of Gods and Men (Des hommes et des dieux)

'Gods' makes men divine
Of Gods and Men (Des hommes et des dieux)
Genre: Drama
Running Time: 120 min
Release Date: 2011-02-25
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By "Lawrence Toppman"
The Charlotte Observer

You can’t hope for a joyful ending when “Of Gods and Men” begins with a quotation from Psalm 82 of the Bible: “You are gods, and all of you are children of the Most High. But you shall die like men and fall like one of the princes.”

The French, for whom this movie was first intended, already knew what occurred when terrorists swarmed a Trappist monastery in Algeria in 1996. But director Xavier Beauvois, who wrote the script with producer Etienne Comar, wanted to set the tone from the beginning for the rest of us. His picture is not about its tragic destination, but the compelling journey French monks make en route.

I can’t recall the last film that so wholly, honestly and movingly explained what it means to be a Christian: to doubt, to struggle with your conscience, to be afraid of failure and pain but press on, to be disgusted with elements of humanity but forgive its transgressions, to serve God’s will as you perceive it while your safety is threatened.

These Christians mean different things to people near them. To Algerian neighbors in their small town, they’re a source of free medicine and advice, not to mention homemade jam sold at a local market. To a government official who’s supposed to protect them, they’re a headache.

To the local army captain, who knows they succor anyone in need, they’re an aid to terrorism. And to the fundamentalist jihadists, these monks become many things: a willing or unwilling source of supplies, a mysterious force to be respected, a bargaining tool in times of war.

These jihadists slash the throats of Croatian construction workers for no reason at the start of the story. So when Christian (Lambert Wilson) gathers his brothers in Christ to discuss what to do, they know they’re not all likely to survive if they stick around.

At that point, I wondered why they’d even need to discuss whether to stay. Their deaths wouldn’t shame the rebels, inspire citizens nearby or change the behavior of people elsewhere on Earth.

Why not go someplace else and keep healing the sick and counseling the troubled? In time, the film provides the answer: God called them to serve here to the ends of their abilities, maybe unto death.

The decision to remain is easy for 80-ish Luc (Michael Lonsdale), whose full life has left him ready to go. (“I’m a free man,” he declares.) But younger Christophe (Olivier Rabourdin) doubts the value of this ultimate sacrifice and wrestles aloud with the Lord, like Jesus in Gethsemane.

The picture never takes an anti-Islamic turn. Peaceful Muslim villagers love these men and loathe the machine-gun wielding fanatics, though they live in paralyzing fear and dare not risk their families by helping the authorities.

Yet the film never has the slightest whiff of a sermon. It’s well-acted and handsome to look at through the lens of cinematographer Caroline Champetier. Beauvois shows us the monks’ slow, quiet daily lives without letting the story drag; if most of us could never live in this remote, unchanging place, we see why these men might enjoy it.

They also enjoy secular pleasures: humble food well prepared, or Tchaikovsky’s music on a boombox. (It’s a snippet from “Swan Lake,” another story about transformation into a purer self.)

If the monks are not like us, they are like what we could be if we followed Christ’s teachings in a literal way. When a letter by one of them is read near the end in voice-over, it touches however much of the divine spirit is left in any of us.

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4/21/2011 - The Charlotte Observer - Lawrence Toppman

Monks' lives of quiet contemplation lead to questions of divine intent when terrorists swarm their monastery.

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