Xavier Beauvois' much-feted drama "Of Gods And Men" is a film of quiet contemplation about men of quiet contemplation, Trappist monks inhabiting a provincial Algerian monastery.
Based on a true incident in 1996 involving a clash with Islamic fundamentalists, the film invites a consideration of the social roles of religion and how the unseen and unheard (namely God) provide unlikely justification for radically diverse social action.
The story is, on its face, very simple. The encroachment of Islamic radicals on the peaceful countryside presses a thorny question to the monks: With direct conflict inevitable, should they stay true to their commitment to serve the local needy, or abandon the monastery and return to the safety of France?
Most of the film is preoccupied with answering this question. Though the outcome is never much in doubt (Beauvois all but announces the film's ending from the opening frames), classical tragedies concern themselves less with one's fate and more with how one meets it. These are men of responsibility, service and spiritual devotion, emblematized by the weight of leadership seen in Christian (Lambert Wilson), the medical care tirelessly offered by Luc (Michael Lonsdale), and the monks' daily practices of prayer and chanting. (Side note: It's particularly heartening to see the adept Lonsdale escape his niche as a hard-bitten toughie to play a gentle, loving soul.)
Since Beauvois takes pains to detail the activities and rhythms of monastic life, there's an element of anthropological interest here (or disinterest, for those who find the slow pace unbearably ponderous). Themes emerge: the character of brotherhood (occasionally strained but ultimately loving), strong ties to the community (the monks' trusted counsel is sought even on such matters as secular love), and the struggle to maintain faith even in the face of a world gone mad.
The monks agree they shouldn't be seeking martyrdom. But they are, in a sense, prisoners of conscience, a point that Beauvois and co-writer Etienne Comar only obliquely address. True to life, this community of faith is a conspicuously aging one, and it's the youngest of the group (Olivier Rabourdin) who expresses the greatest reservations about staying in the line of fire: "Dying here, here and now ... does it serve a purpose?"
Christian rather unconvincingly offers, "Help will come from the Lord," but his stronger argument goes to the heart of their sworn vocation to live like Christ: "The Good Shepherd doesn't abandon his flock to the wolves."
The specter of Islamic fundamentalism -- carefully contrasted with the good-hearted men, women and children of the community -- points up the damaging potential of faith. For some viewers, the possibility of the monks remaining to face certain harm will prove the same point.
But Beauvois wears his heart on his sleeve: If he allows the monks their humanity, he's yet more interested in their extraordinary nobility of sacrifice. The film loses some power by letting the central debate fizzle out (Beauvois fumbles the dramatization of the men's arrival at final decisions), but rallies in the end with an eloquent post-climactic testament by Christian, an attempt to respond rationally to the irrational.