A brotherhood of French monks living in a remote Algerian village must chose to either stay or flee in the face of Islamic terrorists.
“Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction”. So said the 17th Century philosopher Blaise Pascal and his sentiments are echoed in the French film Of Gods and Men. It tells the true story of nine Roman Catholic Trappist monks caught in the cross fire of the Algerian civil war in 1996.
Conflict broke out when the government declared that the elections, which they didn’t win, were invalid. This prompted a battle with the rebel Armed Islamic Group and a state of martial law for the next three years. During this time 170 people were killed, including eight of these monks. But questions remain as to what exactly happened and which side was responsible.
Lambert Wilson of the Matrix movies stars as Christian, the leader of this band of elderly Brothers. When not conducting services at the monastery, Christian busies himself with his beehives and selling honey at the local markets. Brother Luc is played by Michael Lonsdale, who also featured as a cleric in Orson Welles’ film The Trial. Here he’s a doctor who tends to patients in the Muslim community where they all reside, and even attends circumcision ceremonies in the village. Acceptance and tolerance of each others religious persuasions has led to a harmonious co-existence. But all this is threatened when the insurgents arrive on their doorstep.
Cinematographer Caroline Champetier gives us some gorgeous shots of the Moroccan landscape, standing in for the Atlas Mountains where the real story took place. Her beautiful compositions frame the characters to reveal their great dilemma in choosing their fate. French director Xavier Beauvoir sent his cast on a retreat to an abbey in the French Alps in preparation for their roles and they spent two months learning the songs that make up a large part of this film. One of these is sung during a powerful scene in which a helicopter, armed with machine guns, hovers menacingly outside their chapel – an acknowledgement of a theory that emerged long after the event that the monks were accidentally killed by the Algerian army in a helicopter attack on the rebels.
People are divided about whether the monks were foolish not to have taken the advice of the authorities and flee while they still had a chance but the fact was they were dealing with a corrupt government and had taken a vow of stability not to leave the monastery. To leave would’ve been to break that vow and to abandon the community that they felt a part of. Some say that they were a vestige of French colonial rule and that they had no place there to begin with. But whatever your view, Of Gods and Men will make you ponder the good and evil things that people do in the name of religion.
Buy it here: of gods and men