By: Jo Siedlecka
Xavier Beauvois' award-winning film Of Gods and Men has just been released on DVD. It is Catholic cinema at its best - beautifully filmed, with a haunting soundtrack, sensitive performances and a gripping human story that deals with faith, community, ecumenism, and the meaning of vocation.
Set in a monastery in the Atlas Mountains in Algeria, it is based on the true story of a group of Cistercian monks who got caught up in the Muslim fundamentalist uprising in the mid 1990s. They are a contemplative order, gathering for Mass and singing the Office throughout the day, studying and working quietly in the kitchen and gardens. But they also have strong bonds of friendship in the Muslim community in which they live. One monk, Brother Luc, (Michael Lonsdale), runs a medical clinic for the villagers - he also has a useful stock of children's shoes. They sell their honey at the market and are invited to attend village celebrations. The Superior, Brother Christian, played by Lambert Wilson, studies the Koran and is friends with the local Mullah.
When a group of Croatian workers are murdered, the authorities urge the monastery to accept a military guard, but they refuse, because the villagers don't have any protection. As more foreigners are killed the monks are urged to leave, and they deliberate slowly and carefully over this. One tells the villagers they are "birds on a branch, not sure whether to fly", but the villagers tell them they are the branch itself, providing protection from the chaos beyond. Finally the monks unanimously decide to stay in solidarity with their Muslim friends.
This group of middle aged and elderly men are very endearing and totally believable. There is a very touching scene when one elderly monk falls asleep in bed with his glasses on, book in hand, and his brother monk gently removes them and covers him with a blanket. Lambert Wilson gives a masterful performance as leader of the community; his inner struggles play in silence on his features.
The tension builds when a group of Muslim fighters break into the monastery just before Christmas Midnight Mass and Fr Christian calmly tells them that he can't help them because it is a sacred day. He quotes from the Koran and the fighters leave them to continue their celebration.
In another gut wrenching episode the monks continue to sing while a helicopter gunship swoops round and round over the rooftop. One says that "staying here is as mad as becoming a monk in the first place."
Near the end, Brother Luc decides to serve wine and play a record of Swan Lake during their evening meal. The camera gently moves around the table playing on the smiles and tears of the men's faces in a scene which is the moral and emotional heart of a remarkable film.