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Movie Review: Of Gods and Men

March 13, 2011

Based on the true story of French monks living in a small Algerian community torn apart by violent Islamic extremists during the ‘90s, “Of Gods and Men” (“Des Hommes et des Dieux”) has the potential to be a gripping account of real-life events, but fails to live up to the magnitude of the story it is telling.

For the first twenty minutes or so, the movie seems to have no plot at all. The monks go about their daily duties at their monastery, often in solitude, cleaning, gardening, making honey to sell, and of course, chanting and praying.

Dialogue is limited, and when it does occur in a scene, nothing much is said. The sense of the monks’ austerity is prevalent, but austerity and introspection are simply not entertaining to watch.

Finally, after watching a lot of garden hoeing and chanting, we learn that the Algerian community surrounding the monastery is being harassed by a religious terrorist organization, Jama Islamiyya. The Muslim fundamentalist group wants to overthrow the Algerian government, and violently eliminates anyone or anything they feel could get in the way of this goal, causing the Algerian army to fight back in an equally violent manner.

Despite the possibility of impending danger, Christian (Lambert Wilson), who oversees the monastery, seems unfazed, even after a brutal (and graphic) slaying of Croatian workers occurs nearby. He refuses to have the army protect the monastery, viewing it as disruption of the sanctuary provided by their “house of peace.”

The violence finally makes it to their very doorstep when a group of rebel terrorists break into the monastery. Christian shows no sign of intimidation, dealing with the intruders rationally, and even promising them medical treatment from the kind, old doctor, Luc (Michael Lonsdale). He explains that it is Christmas, and the leader of the terrorists, Fayattia, acts civilly and shows deference for the holiday, shaking Christian’s hand and leaving peacefully.

While Christian appears calm after the encounter, several of the other monks are visibly shaken. The young monk, Chrisophe (Olivier Rabourdin) is especially affected, and begins to unravel, praying for help while slowly losing his faith in God.

As violence in the area continues to escalate, the monks must decide whether to leave Algeria for a safer place, abandoning the village they have become an integral part of, or stay despite the dangers. In the end, it boils down to the question: How far can their faith take them?

The tension between the monks, the terrorists they live in fear of, the government, who disapproves of their relationship with the terrorists, and each monk’s individual struggle with his commitment to his religion, makes for a truly interesting story, and the fact that it is based in reality makes it even more intriguing. Those who aren’t already familiar with the story will want to know how, if and when these tensions are resolved.

However, you will have to wait a seeming eternity to find out. While the plot has great promise, the movie moves at such a crawling pace it is hard to enjoy. While the rawness and lack of frou-frou cinematography is refreshing, there are just far too many scenes where nothing is actually happening to appreciate it.

If the movie is judged only on the scenes of substance, it would be a highly moving film. Lambert Wilson and Michael Lonsdale display some brilliant acting chops throughout, and the elderly monk Amedee, played by Jacques Herlin, provides the film with some much-needed comic relief with his charming innocence.

Unfortunately, the scenes where these actors actually get to shine are too few and far between. Director Xavier Beauvois tries too hard to portray a feeling rather than to tell a story – we get that they are monks, that they live a simple, slow-moving existence, but moving at a sloth-like pace just makes the movie drag.

It also seems that some scenes are simply thrown in there to be “artsy.”  A dinner scene at the monastery, accompanied by the haunting music from “Swan Lake” (made so popular of late with the success of “Black Swan”), shows the monks moving through a sequence of emotions, from wine-drunk smiles to passionate tears, in a series of extreme close-ups. However, this scene makes just as much sense taken out of context as it does in the movie itself.

Had this scene, and the other hour’s worth of unnecessary footage, been edited out, “Of Gods and Men” would make for a captivating film. However, as it stands, it’s a movie not worthy of gods or men.

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