Director: Xavier Beauvois
Writers: Xavier Beauvois and Etienne Comar
Cinematographer: Caroline Champetier
Starring: Lambert Wilson, Michael Lonsdale, Olivier Rabourdin, Philippe Laudenbach
Studio/Runtime: Sony Pictures Classics/120 min.
Movies adapting real-life stories for the big screen always have a tough choice in how accurately they depict events. Hollywood usually chooses to heighten things and, although we accept that they’re only inspired by reality and not recreations, it’s also possible to stray too far in the realm of realistic depictions. That’s the case with Of Gods and Men, which depicts what happened to a Trappist monastery in Algeria during 1996, events which largely consist of the monks attending to their normal monk business while the country around them is collapsing.
Of course, a movie like this has a heavy spiritual component, and director Xavier Beauvois highlights this by breaking up the monks’ daily business in fields and helping the town where they live with spiritual ceremonies. These are all heavy on singing and chanting, and they speak of something going on beyond what we see on-screen. But all of these sequences couple with a threadbare story to make a film that moves at a glacial pace, such that 30 minutes into the film it’s still difficult to make out if Of Gods and Men has a plot at all.
What we do have of a plot is inspiring, with the monks all gradually accepting their fates and staying with their town despite almost certain death. It’s about both religion and community in this way, but aside from a few obvious tics these characters aren’t fleshed out. They exist beyond back stories, it seems, which helps keep them at a distance. This distance is part of what makes the movie such a hagiography, and while Of Gods and Men has an arty look and style it’s almost utterly without complexity. Many of its more interesting characters are in fact the terrorists and members of the local government at odds with them, since they feel more innately human. Since the monks’ martyrdom is predestined as soon as the story begins, these supporting characters are the only real people we see.
The surface of Of Gods and Men is beautiful and the sacrifice made by the monks at its center is admirable, but that’s all of them we see. There’s nothing ultimately gained from seeing them listen to the finale of Swan Lake or seeing them look pensive about having soldiers in the monastery. Beauvois tells the story he wants to beautifully, and it’s a success in that it shows us a depiction of the monks that doesn’t feel exploitative, but he seems to equate austere minimalism with depth. The result is that Of Gods and Men never goes above describing what the monks did rather than showing us how they felt.