Of Gods and Men

The true story of the abduction and murder of seven Cistercian monks in Algeria is Mike Catto's film of the year

French director Xavier Beauvois’ feature film Of Gods and Men (Des Hommes et des Dieux) is based on the kidnapping and eventual murder of seven French Cistercian monks in Tibhirine, Algeria by religious extremists in 1996.

Beauvois' film could be described as an exploration of faith under adversity, but 'faith' is a concept and a practice that rarely works in narrative cinema. Some documentaries, such as Into Great Silence, have caught something of the ritual and calmness of monastic orders, but too often fictional representations rely on sensationalism and/or tendentious religious platitudes. This film avoids such tropes.

The small monastery in which the seven monks spend some of their last days exists in a Muslim country, but the brothers work with and for the adjacent village. They are respected by locals and in turn they respect the faith and traditions of their adopted country. They are not missionaries: they do not attempt to convert Muslims to Christianity.

Nor are they blind to the religious tensions and violence that blight the north African country, but they choose to side neither with the inept government ('the brothers of the plain,' as they call it) nor the rebels ('the brothers of the mountain'), and when a group of armed extremists make their first visit to the monastery on Christmas Eve they are invited, in Arabic, to join in the celebrations for the birth of Sidna Aissa, the Prince of Peace, a great prophet in both religions.

As the threats of violence to all foreigners increase day by day, the brothers discuss their probable fate, first with rationality and then according to religious principle. But then, like the ordinary men they are, they begin to bicker and question. They may be a collective – with an elected leader, the intellectual Brother Christian – but as in any collective there are divisions and each individual must search his own soul for answers.

Adding authenticity to the piece, the actors themselves sing the Cistercian liturgy and canonical hours throughout the film, and it is this pursuit that always seems to bring their characters back together. In one telling scene they sing/chant louder and with greater solidarity, so as to drown out the sound of a government helicopter circling overhead.

The one instance of music heard that is not religious occurs when the group share their last supper together: wine is served as a cheap cassette player tinnily plays music from Swan Lake. The camera pans around the group, getting closer each time, until we are presented with extreme close-ups of the differing expressions on the men's faces and in their eyes. It is moving in the extreme.

The two best known actors in this ensemble are Lambert Wilson and the wonderfully craggy Michael Lonsdale (both francophone, despite their English sounding names) as the ascetic Brother Christian and Brother Luc respectively. Their monastic adoptive names suggest the different ways in which they approach the moral ambiguities of the situation: Christian, the doubting pilgrim, and Luke the physician.

Throughout the film Beauvois subtly, simply, but with great underlying understanding of the complexities of the situation in which the brothers find themselves draws us, the audience, into having to participate in the debate(s) with his characers. What would we do in similar circumstances?

Of Gods and Men won both the Grand Prix and the Ecumenical Prize at Cannes, and although it only opens at Queen's Film Theatre on December 31, the last day of the year, I humbly recommend it as my favourite film of 2010.