Of Gods and Men
Special to The History Place
As with so many movies that I’ve reviewed in this space over the past half dozen years, Of Gods and Men is an important film from the historian’s perspective, and one which received high critical acclaim, including the Grand Prix at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival and the “Best Film” prize at the 36th annual Cesar Awards in Paris on February 25th – and yet will never attract anything approaching a mass audience in the U.S. I was able to catch it near the end of its run at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute in suburban Philadelphia, its only venue (so far as I know) in this metropolitan region of two-million-plus people. You may need to resort to Netflicks, if this review inspires you (as I hope it will) to see this film.
Directed by Xavier Beauvois, Of Gods and Men is the story of seven Trappist monks, who were murdered in Algeria in 1996. It was filmed mostly in an abandoned monastery in Morocco, and focuses principally upon the congenial relationship between the Catholic friars and the local Muslim population, tracing its gradual deterioration as terrorism is resurrected in a second Algerian War.
The first Algerian War (1954-1962) resulted in one classic film, The Battle of Algiers (1966). Sometimes called the Algerian War of Independence, the conflict led to the escalation of torture on the part of the French paratroopers and Legionnaires assigned to quell the rebellion and a concomitant escalation of terrorism by the National Liberation Front (FLN). Filmed in black and white, The Battle of Algiers has a docudrama grit that sustains its power even today, when the special effects in recent “terrorist” films, such as The Kingdom and Vantage Point (also reviewed in this space), eclipse the seemingly simplistic “purse bombs” delivered by rebel women to cafes and bistros in the ’66 movie.
Likewise, the power of Des Hommes et Dieux (as it was released in France last year) derives from the traditional arts of good screenwriting, direction, and acting, unsupported by computer-generated razzle-dazzle. The nine monks grow their own food, raising a little cash by taking the surplus to market. They also provide medical services to the Algerians in the nearby town. When ordered to abandon the monastery due to the war, they vote to stay.
The start of this second Algerian War, typically termed the Algerian Civil War, is generally fixed in late 1991, when the fundamentalist Islamic Salvation Front (FIN) was deemed by the FLN to be so popular that the latter cancelled scheduled elections after just one round. The military soon assumed effective control of the government. The FIN was banned and thousands of adherents arrested. Those who slipped the net formed the Islamic Armed Movement (MIA) and the Armed Islamic Group (GIA). Then, like so many civil insurrections, this one escalated from a battle between the army and police on one hand and the MIA on the other to yet another war of terror and torture. (The government finally won in 2002.)
When the conflict comes to the monastery on Christmas Eve, the prior (Lambert Wilson) attempts to reason with the rebel leader, who demands medicine that is in short supply and sorely needed for the monastery’s mission to its neighbors. A debate ensues between the two leaders in which they trade quotations from the Koran – but to no avail. In March 1996 the monks are kidnapped. (In real life seven of nine were taken, two sleeping on separate cells being overlooked, but subsequently unable to affect a timely SOS.)
Wilson provides a terrific, low-key performance. The confrontation scene requires him to portray a leader who must control his fear, while attempting to reason with the rebel chief. He carries this off so impeccably that you can’t help but viscerally share his sense of terror.
For my money, though, the standout performance is logged by 80-year-old Irish/British actor Michael Lonsdale. Having lived much of his younger days in Paris and Casablanca, Lonsdale is capable of turning in compelling performances in either English or French. He gave us a little bit of both as “Papa,” the patriarch of the shadowy family, which provides the Israeli terrorist-hunters with much of their information in Munich, (also reviewed by me here). In that role, he projected low-key menace, a wolf in the sheep’s clothing of a loving father and grandfather, puttering around in the family’s kitchen and presiding over a large family feast, then telling the leader of the Mossad counter-terrorist team, “You could be my son – but you’re not.”
As Father Luc, he is warned by his prior to be cautious about whom he helps, because his good deeds may be mistaken for political actions. He replies, “Throughout my career I’ve met all sorts of different people. Including Nazis. Including the devil… I’m not scared of terrorists, even less of the army. And I’m not scared of death. I’m a free man.”
Free men or not, following months of imprisonment and fruitless negotiations, the kidnapped monks were killed. In real life, the GIA took credit for the killings, but French officials later asserted that they were killed by their would-be saviors in a botched rescue attempt. Personally harboring a strong dislike for reviews that give too much information, I’ll leave Beauvois’s version of the monks’ tragedy for you to discover on your own.
Just one last item then: the title of the film derives from the Book of Psalms in the Bible: “I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High. But ye shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes.” (Psalm 82: 6-7)
Rated PG-13 for a momentary scene of startling wartime violence, some disturbing images and brief language.
Jim Castagnera, a freelance journalist and practicing attorney, is the author of 18 books, including Al Qaeda Goes to College (Praeger 2009) and Ned McAdoo and the Molly Maguires (Amazon 2011).