The year is 1993. Nine Cistercian monks live in the monastery of Tibhirine in the Atlas mountains of Algeria. The monks live in good intelligence with the Muslim villagers, farming, making honey, treating patients in their clinic, teaching children. Unfortunately, the precursor—and to us now familiar—signs of fundamental Islam are entering this peaceful community. Murders of foreign construction workers, kidnappings, enforcement of hijab and exactions set the scene. The monks, though clearly in danger, refuse to leave for a less threatening environment despite entreaties from local authorities.
Xavier Beauvois’s film tells this true story that takes place over three years in “Of Men and Gods,” which received the Grand Prize of the Jury at the last Cannes Film Festival. The film is quiet and sparse. Sparse means no flourishes, no elaborate cinematography of the spectacular natural scenery, no sound track even—with the exception of the grand theme from Swan Lake in one heartrending scene, we only hear the chanting of the monks. Sparse also means no disquisition, no argument about why things are as they are, no commentary on the story state of our world.
Viewers, tensing throughout in expectation of the inevitable tragedy, are allowed to reach their own conclusions. One, if we didn’t know it already, is the horror of fanaticism, which in this case violently transforms the environment of the almost dreamily peaceful village. Two, the monks give new meaning to the words faith and spirituality. In the awful present-day mishmash of extremisms of all sorts, of Jesus freaks, of Al-Qaeda fanatics, of various cults disguised as churches or viable belief systems, of growing intolerance from groups each persuaded of possessing the only truth, finding this voice of purity, of lives completely dedicated to a calling, without the least hint of activism or political statement is refreshing to the extreme, not to mention humbling, to believer and non-believer alike.
“Of Men and Gods” is an essential film, well served by the actors, particularly Lambert Wilson as the ascetic and somewhat dictatorial Brother Christian, and Michael Lonsdale who runs the clinic as Brother Luke. In the course of one conversation with village elders, when the monks mention the possibility of their leaving the village, one woman tells them, “We are the birds, you are the branch on which we sit. If you leave, what happens to us?”