Of Gods and Men- Movie Review

Written by  //  December 17, 2010  //  Philosophy, Religion, Culture  //  6 Comments

I recently watched the French Movie, “Of Gods and Men” directed by Xavier Beauvois . It is possibly one of the greatest movies I have ever seen- if indeed you can ascribe the term “movie” to it. It seemed to me to be more of a religio-philosophical experience -only acted out on screen and with a plot.

Briefly, and without, I hope, too many spoilers, the story. The movie follows the lives of a Cistercian order of French priests in a remote Church in the Atlas mountains of Algeria. It follows their daily routine of prayer, contemplation, work and service to the local village with great love and care- almost with same gentle care with which the priests seem to lead their lives. the movie is clearly in love with the priests and their exalted state of practice. That for me is the crux of the film, the simple and heart felt way in which the monks go about their daily tasks diligently actually provides the only clue to their seemingly suicidal decision later on. The priests help out the Muslim villagers with a wide variety of daily issues from broken shoes to broken hearts. Of course, there is trouble very soon. The village falls victim to the wave of Islamic fundamentalism taking hold of the country rapidly and there are attacks against non-Muslims. The situation comes to such a pass that staying on almost certainly means death. The army and the Government also pressurise the monks to leave to avoid trouble and embarrassment.

How each monk reconciles with his faith and fear to decide what to do forms the rest of the movie. I don’t think it is a spoiler in this movie to reveal that the monks (all of them with one exception) do end up getting killed. But that their death almost sinks into insignificance is the deep strength of the film. It is not their death or even the one fortunate survival that matters, it is the process by which each monk comes to accept and indeed celebrate the fact they are going to have to stay in the church that is the core of the movie. The audience in my hall were moved to tears not at the very end when we are told of their death but in the penultimate scene which is a sort of cinematic re-enactment of the Last Supper reaffirming the faith of the monks in their chosen path.

It is so hard to review a “movie” like this because as I already pointed out it is more of an experience to be lived. The best I can do is to pick some scenes and show how the movie actually drives home its point.

The first defining scene comes during the confrontation between Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson) (the head monk of the democratic order) and the local leader of the Mulsim terrorists, Ali Fayettia (Farid Larbi). The terrorists storm the church and ask for the doctor monk (Brother Luc played by Michael Lonsdale) to be sent with them to treat their wounded comrades. The immense sense of dread created by the scene is due to the fact that the previous scene showing the terrorists merely shows them summarily executing hapless Croatians for no apparent reason. So, you are led to expect a similar treatment for the monks. When therefore the terrorists only ask for the doctor to be sent to help them out- it seems like a very reasonable and indeed humane request. But as soon as the camera focuses on Brother Christian’s face you instinctively know that he is going to refuse. In a performance that is oscar worthy, he conveys to the viewer that not only is he not going to send the doctor or even medicines but also the reasons for this seemingly suicidal decision.

The next scene I want to pick out is the one where Brother Christophe (Olivier Rabourdin), the most skeptical of the monks and the one who most fervently questions the decision to stay, has a change of heart. The dialogue in this scene is possibly the most sensitive ever written for the screen. Initially Brother Christophe is merely shown as the monk who is afraid to stay on and you have little sympathy for his motives. But the movie makes a crucial exception to show us his state of mind. In all the scenes of prayer in the movie, the monks are always shown from behind de-emphasising their individuality and stressing the devotional content of the song being sung (all of which are truly heart rending). However, in the scene which shows us Brother Christophe’s conflict we are shown his face behind Brother Christian clearly showing us that what he is suffering from is not fear but a deep sadness and frustration arising from a sudden loss of faith. Subsequently, he is shown screaming in his bed chamber to God asking where the latter had suddenly gone deserting him. The actual scene where he does change his mind and gets his faith back cannot be recreated here because- as I have already said- it involves dialogue of the most sublime order.

The final scene that I want to pick is the final scene itself. In an imitation of the Last Supper of Christ with his disciples, the scene shows the monks enjoying a drink and dinner listening to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. The camera focuses on each monk’s face reflecting their absolute peace and reconciliationwith their fate. Some of them cry, but again the tears are not out of fear for their impending death or of sorrow but of gratitude. It is really hard to explain this scene of the movie but I almost certainly am convinced that the only way one can describe the tears of the monks is that these are tears of gratitude. Grateful to God for the amount of peace and reassurance his abiding presence has brought them. Many in the audience including me cried during this scene – again not out of knowledge that these kind faces are going to perish soon but because of the immense gratitude we felt for having been able to experience this journey of the monks.

6 Comments on "Of Gods and Men- Movie Review"

  1. Harsh December 28, 2010 at 6:01 pm ·

    Brilliant review! I have not seen the film, neither heard of it but this review makes me want to watch it!

  2. rajendrakop January 4, 2011 at 5:46 am ·

    will torrent it right away
    thx so much for info

  3. Harsh March 12, 2011 at 1:36 pm ·

    http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20110310/REVIEWS/110319994 , Hi Subra, was wondering if you have read the Ebert review, i am in no position to comment having not seen the movie, but his last paragraph makes some interesting observations, will torrent first, and speak later though.

  4. Arghya June 12, 2011 at 11:17 pm ·

    I just watched the movie Subra and I agree. One of the most touching I’ve seen.

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