Inexplicably mistranslated from its original French title (Des Hommes et Des Dieux – literally Of Men & Gods) it may appear to some to be a trivial example of a continuing lackadaisical approach to subtitling and the inevitable loss of meaning specific to each language. However, it is nonetheless a curious case considering that its name reflects the film’s philosophical outlook. Perhaps the English distributers rely on GCSE French rather than a native speaker but it is a shame anyway, acting as a minor betrayal to the message of the content.
The narrative is sourced from the true tale of a brotherhood of seven Trappist Monks who lived peacefully in Tibhirine, a remote village in Algeria, until their being beheaded in 1996 in mysterious circumstances; the perpetrators believed to be either the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria, who officially claimed responsibility, or the result of a possible accident administered by the Algerian Army.
Having not been one of the many admirers of Xavier Beauvois’s performance in Villa Amalia, an experience that proved so boring it induced a minor anxiety attack, I approached Of Men & Gods mostly with trepidation, sensing an opportunity to return to exploit excruciatingly protracted silences with even greater abandon than he had done in his former film. Now behind the camera and armed with a better script, truly astounding performances, articulate dialogue, masterly cinematography, atmospheric locations and a painterly lighting design, the film’s aesthetic effortlessly blends with its subject matter and characters, the quiet day-to-day life of the monks serenely evoked.
Much of the film concentrates on the performance of ritual, both in prayer and in work, characters often seen repeating the same tasks whether it be collecting firewood or ploughing the earth. With Missionary zeal they help provide medicine and doctors for the local Muslim population and are in turn welcomed into the community. Despite their positive and motiveless influence, local Islamic extremists object to their presence, as does the local government official who still harbours resentment towards French colonialism, a legacy believed to be accountable for the escalating war breaking out in his country.
Philosophical without being pretentious, religious without being pious and leisurely without becoming tedious, Of Men & Gods creates scenes of immense complexity, deployed with a subtlety rarely witnessed in contemporary cinema. Addressing themes of martyrdom, whether any cause is worth dying for (there is a brave question underpinning the film as to whether Jesus was crucified in vain), what humans living in austerity truly have when stripped of all material wealth, faith their only remaining possession and what the soul must seek if it should want contentment. The Monks are not seen to be saints; indeed, their decision to stay at the monastry despite desperate pleas for them to leave is at once noble and suicidle, an act of madmen.
In a stand-out scene Brother Luc (Michael Lonsdale) recounts his life to a concerned teenager facing a forced marriage, explaining the life he left behind and the many women he loved until he found a “greater love, one which has lasted 60 years”. Much later in the film, when the prospect of death grows greater and the men gather together to drink wine and listen to classical music, frivolous indulgences otherwise forbidden, they are stripped of their robes and bared as naked men to whom love and togetherness are the most important elements of life. As they break with tradition and a religious war threatens, all of whose key texts ironically proclaim peace and understanding among men, the melancholia is almost unbearable and counts as one of the outstanding scenes of the year.
OF GODS AND MEN (15): On Special Release Friday 3rd December