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"Of Gods And Men" - A Lesson In Being Human

Christine Weitbrecht |
February 5, 2011 | 2:37 p.m. PST

Staff Reporter

The monks of Tibhirine combat the effects of terrorism in "Of Gods And Men" (Sony Pictures Classics)
The monks of Tibhirine combat the effects of terrorism in "Of Gods And Men" (Sony Pictures Classics)
"Of Gods and Men"

(France, 2010, 122 mins)

Eight Cistercian monks live in harmony with surrounding Muslim villagers in Tibhirine (Algeria) in the 1990s. Despite their differences in faith, monks and villagers form a tightly-knit community based on friendship, reciprocity, and mutual understanding, until one day, seven of the monks are being kidnapped and beheaded by Islamic fundamentalists. The End. 

At first sight, "Of Gods and Men", France’s official entry for the 83rd Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, may seem like your typical heroic martyr story: A set of heroes remains so steadfast in their ideals and beliefs that they are willing to die for these principles, selflessly sacrificing themselves for the lives of others and for humanity as a whole. However, it is very clear from the very first moments of the film that "Of Gods and Men" is a lot more than that. 

Director Xavier Beauvois does not hesitate to draw on all the stylistic intricacies of French cinema to create a very empathetic portrait of both the monks and the villagers in their attempts to retain their freedom and community, in a time where extremist beliefs and their human agents threaten the very base of their existence. The viewer remains a pure spectator; camera angles, frames, and scenic pans differ greatly from the engaging camerawork found in mainstream Hollywood films.

The audience finds itself looking on to the developments on the screen rather than taking part in them, a reflection of our everyday roles as on-lookers in the global wars brought about by extremist beliefs. The quiet and peaceful scenes depicting life in the monastery and in the village are increasingly interrupted by the loud, almost painful noise surrounding practically all actions involving the Islamic fundamentalists and the Algerian military. At the same time, the slow but steady pace of the narrative highlights the inevitability of tragedy and death in a war that claims to be about faith, but ultimately boils down to a struggle for power. 

Caught in the midst of this struggle are both monks and villagers, and throughout the film, Beauvois highlights the suffering of both. The Muslim villagers find their lives and lifestyles equally suppressed as the monks. Even though events at the monastery do remain the focus of the film, everyone involved has to fear for their lives, including the villagers. And each of them is just as helpless as the other – a key message in "Of Gods and Men."

Ultimately, faith is irrelevant when it comes to fundamentalist terrorism, and it affects anyone who is not willing to bow to the terrorists’ demands. The film focuses on the importance of recognizing that not all Muslims are fundamentalists, and that they, just like anyone else, are suffering from the terrorism that has increasingly been gripping the world. Beauvois demonstrates that it is perfectly possible for Christians and Muslims to live alongside each other, accept each other’s faiths, even learn about the others’ beliefs – as long as those hungry for power leave them alone. 

This is not Beauvois’ only lesson. Even though religion plays an important role from the beginning, its significance diminishes as the film progresses. After the first terrorist onslaught, the monks disagree on whether to leave their monastery to protect their own lives, or to stay and to remain with the villagers with whom they formed such strong bonds over the years.

As the events continue to unfold in increasingly threatening ways, the monks begin to understand that in this case, God may not be able to provide them with an answer for the choices they have to make. They start to realize that the decision to stay or to leave is primarily a human one, in which their faith can only offer them trust in a good outcome. What is more, this human decision is not just one of life or death; it is a question of what each of them values most, and how much they are willing to pay for it.

"Of Gods and Men" remains free from artificial drama and offers the viewer a very authentic taste of the type of decisions humans are faced with in such extreme times. It will touch any heart not made of stone, presenting a truly unique combination of pervasive sadness at the monks’ unwarranted end, and an overwhelming sense of empowerment at the confidence and contention with which they made their choice. Though long-winded at times, it is a very current portrayal of the destructive force terrorism exerts at the micro-level, highlighting the need for decisions and principles that may be inspired by a certain faith but ultimately can only be made by each individual person. "Of Gods and Men" is an absolute must-see.

Reach reporter Christine Weitbrecht here

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