Loosely based on the life of a group of French Cistercian monks living in Algeria in the 1990s, Of Gods and Men (Des hommes et des Dieux) won the Grand Prix at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. Beautifully shot, directed (by Xavier Beauvois) and acted, it’s a wonderful mix of perfectly cast characters.
My particular favourite (although it was difficult to choose) is the wonderful, wise old bird Frère Luc (Michael Lonsdale), the order’s doctor. Clad in ribbed cardigan and beanie, he ministers to the local villagers and discusses life and love – both spiritual and temporal. However, as religious tensions in the area heighten and the violence increases, the monks must decide whether to leave their home. A quote from Pascal’s pensées, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from a religious conviction” could, suggests Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian apply to the monks, ‘secretly infatuated with the idea of a martyrdom that will fan the flames of violence for generations to come’ as much as the local mujahideen.
I’d argue, however, that the film specifically discounts this option. It takes pains to show the monks grappling with their motives and the struggle of each to reach a decision. The keyword here is struggle. Although stylistically the film is contemplative, the monks’ spirituality is anything but. Just how physical this struggle can be we see, or rather hear, through the cries to God of the youngest of the monks, Frère Christophe (Olivier Rabourdin), alone in his cell. Belief, as portrayed in the film, is a powerful, dynamic force which depends on order and ritual if it is to be contained. (As a whole, the film could also be read as a refutation of Pascal’s quote: replacing the word ‘evil’ with ‘good’.)
Bradshaw also draws attention to ‘a cynical police chief, irritably preparing to wash his hands of the imminent bloodbath [who] tells Christian: “I blame French colonisation for not letting Algeria grow up.”’ Rather than cynicism though, the scene offers some vital context. I felt sympathy for the administrator (actually a local official rather than a police chief), caught as he was between a rock and a hard place. The scene draws attention to France’s colonial past, without claiming any easy answers. It complicates our response to the monks by providing a political and historical context – and perhaps even provides an echo of the phrase ‘the sins of the father…’.
Rituals are the spine of the film: the rituals of the land, or those of the villagers, are as carefully observed as those of the monks’ religious life. There are beautiful scenes of tending the land through the seasons. And it is no coincidence that the monastery keeps bees – a symbol of a community living in productive order and harmony. Ritual, representing beauty, order and life, is opposed to violence, disorder and death. But the film does not reduce this to a choice of either / or. Rather the struggle (that word again) lies in achieving balance.
The many panning shots seems to reinforce this holistic sense and the need to see the bigger picture. Similarly, their control brilliantly suggests the control of emotion. The photography, and in particular the use of colours (subtle enough to explore the amazing variety of tones possible in cream / white / grey) is stunning. One breathtakingly beautiful shot pans over the pale walls of the chapel before introducing a splash of colour (perhaps another echo of the links between the temporal and spiritual): the russet, earthy hue of Luc’s cardigan.
The final scene, after the monks have been kidnapped (by terrorists or the army – the actual events are still contested) shows them helping one another through snowy mountains. For me it brought to mind Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, where Hans Castorp awakes from a dream of being trapped in a blizzard. Contemplating the meaning, he concludes “because of charity and love, man should never allow death to rule one’s thoughts.” A tenet brought to life by the monks and echoed by Luc’s, ‘I am not afraid of the terrorists and even less of the army. I am not afraid of death either, I am a free man.’