Posted by Jenn Winterbine
30. May, 2011
Of Gods and Men (Des Hommes et des Dieux) documents the plight of a group of French Christian monks who live in the Algerian mountains. It is loosely based on the Tibhirine incident, in which seven monks were kidnapped and killed during the Algerian War of 1996.
Directed by Xavier Beauvois, it is a spiritual tale of Cistercian monks who live in harmony with their Muslim neighbours. Their brotherly bond is solidified through daily tasks of farming and eating. The calming hum of their Gregorian chants is interrupted by the arrival of a Muslim militia who is fighting a corrupt government. The monks soon realise the village they have served for years is under siege, and are faced with the weighty decision of whether to stay or go.
Christian (Lambert Wilson), the leader of the group, tries his best to navigate an impossible situation. He reluctantly agrees to provide medical treatment to the rebels, whilst tentatively conversing with pro-government colonels who boast to him about war crimes. The situation is complicated by the poor health of Luc (Michael Lonsdale), an elderly physician with chronic asthma, and the mood swings of Christophe (Oliver Rabourdin), the youngest of the group.
At times, Of Gods and Men emanates a tinge of cultural superiority. The monks choose to stay in Algeria as a type of self-sacrifice. Their monologues about staying to educate Algerians about God evoke notions of the “white man’s burden” that was prevalent during the colonisation of Africa.
Beauvois attempts to depict Islam as a religion of many variants. Villagers are seen debating the Koran and politics; some support the rebels and some do not. Yet the underlying image of Islam is one of a menace that threatens to unhinge the civilised world. A villager anachronistically refers to the French Government’s ban on the Hijab and denounces Muslim schoolgirls who wear the headscarf. It is comments like these which prompt questions about the intentions behind the film: is it a simple enactment of Tibhirine story, or does it serve as a biased commentary on clash of ideologies?
Of Gods and Men is a meditative story about the strength of faith in the face of adversity. Its minimalistic style is in stark contrast to the stylised gloss of many current films. The film is brought to life by the convincing, in-depth performances of its cast. Disappointingly, it does little to challenge the post-911 climate of paranoia that Islamic extremism is taking over the world.
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