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Film Review

Of Gods and Men

Strong religious faith has given us some of the worst behavior toward others but also has given men and women great courage and grace. Some kill in the name of faith, while others willingly sacrifice their lives in an attempt to save others. In 1996, during a civil war in Algeria, a group of French Trappist monks were kidnapped from their monastery and later killed. The circumstances of their deaths are still unclear but it seems likely that they were murdered by Islamic terrorists. Algeria had a prolonged revolutionary war, from 1954 through 1962, in its struggle for independence from France. France had always considered Algeria to be an integral part of the country, and its independence was considered unthinkable. Consequently the conflict was long and bloody, with atrocities on both sides, which left deep cultural scars on both societies, and sowed the seeds for a later civil war. With "Of Gods and Men", Xavier Beauvois, a French screen writer and director, has used this tragedy to look at the lives of these monks, and how they lived, rather than how they died. Beauvois' film is a masterpiece, beautiful and powerful, but in a quiet, austere fashion, like the lives of the monks themselves.

The eight monks live in a small monastery adjacent to a Muslim village, and one of the monks, Luc, provides basic medical care to the villagers. Luc is old and asthmatic, but utterly dedicated. The monks grow much of their own food, keep bees, and sell their honey in the local market. The monks make no attempt to proselytize, and the villagers clearly trust and respect them. In one scene, a young woman asks Luc "how do you know when you are in love"? Luc responds in a surprisingly articulate and sympathetic way, telling her of his earlier loves, and of finally finding his greatest love in God. The elected leader of the Monks, Christian, is quiet, yet an eloquent leader, and sympathetic to the Muslim faith. He reads and analyzes the Koran. Much of the film looks closely at the monks' everyday life of prayer, contemplation, and work. The scenes of prayer and liturgical chanting in their small chapel are as beautiful and moving as anything on screen. Their communal meals, with one reading aloud while the others eat, is effecting. Many of these scenes, and indeed much of the film, is strongly reminiscent of Carols Reygadas' "Silent Light" with its long takes of the characters and the landscape.

The civil war begins to touch even this remote, edenic setting. A series of atrocities by terrorists has the local village leader alarmed: "Who could do such things? This is completely forbidden in the Koran." The Algerian Army advises the monks to leave, saying that they do not have enough men to protect them. A senior government official orders them to leave, but Christian say that "only we can make that decision". The official is disgusted, criticizing them for not understanding Algeria. The villagers themselves are fearful, but do not have the option to leave. One night the terrorists break into the monastery, demand medicine, and threaten the monks. There is riveting exchange with the guerrilla leader that presages their fate. The monks begin to debate whether they should leave or stay. All of them are aware of the risks, but are reluctant to leave the villagers to their fate. The villagers themselves beg them to stay: "The village is here because you are here". The monks are very human, no one wants to die, but they feel dedicated to the village and their service to God. They vote. Beauvois has so many memorable scenes, including the monks chanting against the clattering background of an army helicopter hovering overhead, and a later, very poignant scene of the monks listening to the music of Swan Lake. The film has no musical score, only the chanting of the monks during prayer. The end is heart breaking (but not violent), and a trailer describes their fate.

I loved and was very moved by "Of Gods and Men", and think it the best film that I have seen this year. It won a number of awards in France, and was the French entry for the Academy Awards, but did not make the final cut. Now playing at the Embarcadero. Don't miss seeing this unforgettable film on the big screen.

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