Monks and Muslims - and then terror

Posted: March 18, 2011

A story of faith and doubt, of humanity and the horrors humans are capable of, Of Gods and Men is set in Algeria in the mid-'90s, where a band of French Trappist monks go about their devotional and worldly duties. They pray, they chant, they sweep the floors and cook the meals and tend to their garden. The monastery sits on a hill adjacent to a village. The people are Muslim, but they've come to trust the monks, relying on the physician among them for medical care. There is a sense of harmony, peace, shared history.

But as political tensions rock the country and militant Islamic factions gain ground, that relationship is put to the test.

The grand prize winner at the Cannes Film Festival last May, Xavier Beauvois' extraordinarily moving and troubling Of Gods and Men enters the quiet, meditative world of these devout men. Their leader is Christian (Lambert Wilson), who sits at his desk reading the Quran, looking for the common threads between Islam's great book and the Bible that he and his fellow Cistercians look to for instruction and inspiration.

Beauvois' camera is watchful and unobtrusive, panning the monastery and its spartan rooms, documenting the brothers' quotidian tasks, but also the modest ritual, the beauty, the illumination.

And then forces from beyond its walls threaten to bring everything down.

Based on the true story of seven French monks who were abducted by Algerian  mujahideen  in 1996, Of Gods and Men, sadly, remains as relevant today as ever, as religious, cultural, and political conflict explodes through Africa and the Middle East. Is there a place for reason, for an inclusive God, in a world mad with militancy and dogma?

The great veteran French actor Michael Lonsdale - he of the wry countenance and bushy eyebrows - plays the doctor among the monks, a man named Luc who works his way carefully down the rocky slope to his clinic in the village to treat the men and women, the young and the old, who seek his help. At a dinner in the monastery, with his brothers stationed around a long, plain table, he quotes Pascal: "Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction."

It's an observation of crushing truth.


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/.

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