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Of Gods And Men

Of Gods and Men

Review by Lisa Giles-Keddie

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

THIS sombre, humane and provocative drama from Xavier Beauvois (Don’t Forget You’re Going To Die) is based on a true story from the 1990s.

Eight French monks live in harmony in a Cistercian monastery in North Africa, providing medical, practical and spiritual help to the local community. But fundamentalist violence threatens not only the country as a whole, but also their own existence, forcing them to decide whether to stay or return to France.

It’s a compassionate plea from Beauvois for understanding between religions and cultures, without being too sensationalist or opinionated in its manner.

Beauvois has created a wonderfully sensitive and serene film that’s graced with humanity and understanding, through some remarkable and understated performances and cinematography.

He shows great care to portray these religious men as humble leaders, while still making them approachable as average souls, detailing their everyday duties and thoughts (and spiritual doubts) with careful and subtle injections of humour.

It’s an engaging character study to watch unfold – albeit at a slow pace at times – and discover why they live such a sheltered lifestyle, and how they unite to form their rather odd community. We are still unclear on the former.

The tranquillity that Beauvois creates is abruptly shattered by the unprovoked slaughter of Croatian workers by Islamic fundamentalists on a roadside.

You know it’s only a matter of time before the monks are affected – quite literally – by the changing environment. At this pivotal point, the film retains its character study element, particularly at the monks’ meeting, but becomes one of a journey of survival and, ultimately, of salvation.

Although prepared to meet their maker early, if needs be, Beauvois still portrays their inner terror and fragile morality; this is quite literally mesmerising to watch.

The single, most affecting aspect of the film is how the monks change from a group divided as to whether to leave, to a group defiantly united to stay and face whatever destiny has in store for them.

This transformation is dramatically depicted at an emotional ‘Last Supper’ style dinner scene, played out to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake Theme. It’s a genuine goose-pimples moment.

The cinematography is astoundingly powerful, as the camera pans from face to face, with no dialogue needed, just hearty expressions as the monks eat, drink and be merry.

When the music comes to an end, stone-cold reality dawns, followed by tears – whether of acceptance (of God’s will) or sorrow is what’s equally intriguing. It has to be one of the most defining and iconic images of the recent London Film Festival.

The harrowing ending is similar to watching lambs being led to the slaughter in the snow, but does exude an overwhelming feeling of calm, too, as though God’s comfort is projected through the screen.

Of Gods and Men provides an intellectually rich and textured character journey of life and spirituality, without becoming obsessed with its provocative subject matter; nor does it cast any concluding aspersions either.

In French, with subtitles

Certificate: 15
Running time: 120mins
UK DVD & Blu-ray Release: April 11, 2011