"The Good Shepherd doesn't abandon his flock to the wolves." —Of Gods and Men
For a nation that swears by its Christianity, it amazes me how frugally that righteousness is wielded. While many on the hard religious right speak long and loud of sinful things they see in others, it's hard not to notice that the issues riling them most are those that cost them the least. Never mind feeding the hungry, tending to the sick or sheltering the poor, there are gay marriages and contraceptives to be stopped, books to ban, and Qurans to be burned. It's morality on the cheap, a Wal-Mart approach to faith that never asks for meaningful sacrifice, only smug and certain condemnation. A penny saved is a penny you don't have to share with anyone else ... especially those who might have dark skin or liberal ideas.
In Of Gods and Men, French director Xavier Beauvois reminds us of those who see their faith as a reason to serve, as a calling to embrace mankind in all its flawed grandeur. And while his movie can be accused as insistently uplifting, its quiet, austere and ponderous approach to the wages of faith encourages reflection rather than sentiment. It is movie as meditation.
Based on the real-life story of eight Trappist monks living in Algeria in the mid-1990s, it follows their daily rituals as they serve a small Muslim village. With rich detail, Beauvois chronicles their praying, chanting, tending to the sick, and gardening, leaving much of the first half of the film without dialogue or incident. But for those who know their history, Algeria was entering a period of upheaval, with Islamist fundamentalists seeking to overthrow the corrupt post-colonial government. As the civil war heats up, Croatian workers are murdered and the monks must decide whether to stay true to their vows or abandon the monastery and flee to France. "We are the birds; you are the branch we are sitting on," pleads one of the villagers.
It's an effective moment, but highlights the relative anonymity of the Muslims the monks serve in the film. Coupled with Beauvois' one-sentence reference to the century-long French colonialism that created the dangers they face, one can't help but wonder if there isn't a richer story in this tale of clashing piety — one reverent, the other fervent.
While greater depth would've been welcome, each monk (most are elderly) is deftly sketched, showing us a sense of who they are and the questions that test their resolve. The youngest, Brother Christophe, suffers the deepest fears, wondering how their possible deaths could possibly serve any purpose. Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson), the monk's elected leader and a scholar of the Quran, wrestles with his sense of duty and extreme distaste for martyrdom. He's a thoughtful and sensitive man who's unafraid to doubt yet bravely faces both politicians and fundamentalist soldiers. On the flipside, Michael Lonsdale plays Brother Luc, a tired old bear of a man who refuses to leave his post as the community's sole doctor. Each of these humble and gentle men must decide if their spiritual devotion comes before their physical life.
Beauvois fudges their decision-making process but bandages the misstep with one of the film's most powerful scenes. With little more than a few bottles of wine, "Swan Lake" blaring from a boombox — and the silent faces of the monks listening to Tchaikovsky — the director illustrates the uneasy grace of their decision to remain.
It's not the first time we've seen music portrayed as the force that binds monks together. Beauvois' watchful and patient camera returns to their gorgeously sung hymns time and again, first establishing how they come together in faith and later as a moving testament to the strength of their devotion as a heavily armed military helicopter hovers outside their home and they drown out the pounding of its rotors with a glorious hymn. Such moments elevate the haunting Of Gods and Men from merely heartening to something transcendent.
Opens Friday, April 8, at the Landmark Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.
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