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'Of Gods and Men': Monks' varying human responses to danger elevates film

Lambert Wilson, left, stars with Benaïssa Ahaouari and Michael Lonsdale in Of Gods and Men. The film is based on an event in Algeria in the 1990s.
Lambert Wilson, left, stars with Benaïssa Ahaouari and Michael Lonsdale in Of Gods and Men. The film is based on an event in Algeria in the 1990s.

Of Gods and Men is a quietly compelling if not particularly emotional and sober-minded treatment of an infamous incident in the global clash of "Islamo-fascism" and the West.

In Algeria in the mid-'90s, a small monastery of Trappist monks elected to stay on duty, providing health care in the village where they lived, despite the rising danger all around them.

These monks — some brave, some less so — relied on the community they long had been a part of and had been welcomed into to protect them, even as the Algerian government demanded that they leave, lest they be pawns in the struggle being waged by armed Islamic rebels.

It was an austere life these nine men led: growing produce, singing Latin hymns and ministering to the sick. Writer-director Xavier Beauvois concentrates on their routine: working the garden, fetching firewood, donning their robes for prayer and Gregorian chants. Their world is contrasted with the sometimes noisy one outside their walls. And some of that noise is violence, which the village elders fear is headed their way.

The monks range in age from 40 or so well into their 70s, with Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson) their elected leader, but aged Brother Luc (Michael Lonsdale), the doctor, the heart of their ministry.

They aren't shown proselytizing the locals, but they are respected and loved in the community, welcomed into Islamic rites and ceremonies. In their chats with local leaders (in French and Arabic with English subtitles), they hear of this violence and of the bloody-minded leaders of the revolt. The old men of the village complain that these killers have never read the Quran, even as they use it to justify their actions, and the brothers, who also have read the Quran, nod in agreement.

Worship God, the elders say. "We make no division between any of his messengers."

Eventually, of course, that outside violence intrudes on the monastery, and how these men of religion react — some with righteous resignation, others with calm cunning and still others with fear — is the glory of the film. Brother Christian uses the Quran and the Bible to protect his monastery.

Of Gods and Men goes to some pains to leave out the country where all this happened, suggesting this confrontation is more universal than unique, giving voices of tolerance to both sides of that divide. But the violence — a gruesome massacre of other Europeans is shown, in detail — drowns out those voices, even the ones raised in prayer or song.

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