The following is a reprint of our review from the Cannes Film Festival.
Based on a compelling true story, "Of Gods And Men" is a stoic, stonefaced, reverential tale about the sacrifices of faith and the extreme tests of tolerance that are required in some of the most dangerous places in the world.
Set in Maghreb in the late 1980s, the film focuses on a the co-existence between a Christian monastery and the adjacent local village. The long-established monastery has become a vital part of the village, providing medicine, food and advice to the locals, while the relationships between the village elders and the men of cloth run deep, establishing their symbiotic connection as an ideal of interfaith communication. However, that respect soon comes under intense examination when extremists begin circling the village. The group first make their mark by ruthlessly murdering some Croatian construction workers for little reason, it seems, other than the fact that they're white. They soon afterward come knocking on the monastery door, seeking medicine, but the lead monk, Christian (Lambert Wilson), turns them away saying they don't have anything to give and that they are peaceful people, earning the extremists respect by quoting the Koran which he has been studying. An uneasy truce is established, but it won't be for long, and the monks begin to struggle with their fate, debating whether or not to stay and what price they may face if they continue to maintain their presence in the region.
Thematically it's fascinating and on paper the story is compelling, but director Xavier Beauvois' approach of the material is solemn to the point inertia. As if keen to establish just how faithful and pure these monks are, Beauvois is sure to include at least half a dozen sequences of them singing hymns. While the verses have some sort of tangential connection to the story, these excessively long passages grind the film to a halt. We've also never really met a monk, but we're pretty sure they don't ponderously and profoundly speak each of their lines, dripping each word slowly, with importance and emphasis placed on each syllable. While the eldest monk and Doctor Luc (Michael Lonsdale) do provide a few brief moments of levity, it's not enough to prevent the film from sinking in its own pot of self-importance.
But if Beauvois' hand is too heavy on this screenplay (co-written with Etienne Comar) his observational skills and his ability to let the humanity of the picture reveal itself on its own power, are apt. Beauvois doesn't linger too long in over-explaining just how the Christian and Muslims have come to live in harmony with one another but instead lets quietly rendered moments reveal everything that we need to know. While there is some chest thumping on behalf of the local Muslim elders saying that terrorists don't know the Koran and don't represent the Muslim religion, these sorts of obvious messages are largely left to play out on their own.
As the film moves into its second half, Beauvois becomes more concerned with the machinations of the story and the fate of the monks, than the much more fascinating character study of monks suffering a crisis of faith. While their doubts do get aired in a couple of small scenes, this is the real insight in the picture and it's mostly left to the side. As it stands "Of Gods And Men" is a drama respectful of its characters and subject matter, and though we wish Beauvois had dug deeper and perhaps injected the proceedings with a bit of life, the film remains an intriguing look at how faith can power extreme actions of both good and evil. [B-]