“Of Gods and Men” is a quietly compelling and sober-minded, if not particularly emotional treatment of an infamous incident in the global clash of “Islamo-fascism” and the West. In Algeria in the mid-90s, a small monastery of Trappist monks elected to stay on duty, providing health care to the village where they lived, despite the rising danger all around them.
These monks — some brave, some less so — relied on the community they had long been a part of and welcomed into to protect them, even as the Algerian government was demanding that they leave, lest they be pawns in the struggle being waged by armed Islamic rebels.
It’s an austere life these nine men lead — raising produce, singing Latin hymns and ministering to the sick. Writer-director Xavier Beauvois concentrates on their routine, working the garden, fetching firewood, donning their robes for prayer and Gregorian chants. Their world is contrasted with the sometimes noisy one outside their walls. And some of that noise is violence, which the village elders fear is headed their way.
The monks range in age from 40 or so well into their 70s, with Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson) their elected leader, but aged Brother Luc (the great Michael Lonsdale), the doctor, the heart of their ministry.
They aren’t shown proselytizing the locals, but they are respected and loved in the community, welcomed into Islamic rites and ceremonies. In their chats (in French and Arabic with English subtitles) with local leaders, they hear of this violence and of the bloody-minded leaders of the revolt. The old men of the village complain that these killers have never read the Koran, even as they use it to justify their actions, and the brothers, who also have read the Koran, nod in agreement.
Worship God, the elders say. “We make no division between any of His messengers.”
Eventually, of course, that outside violence intrudes on the monastery, and how these men of religion react — some with righteous resignation, others with calm cunning and still others with fear — is the glory of the film. Brother Christian uses the Koran and the Bible to protect his monastery.
“Of Gods and Men,” opening Friday at the Regal Winter Park 20, goes to some pains to leave out the country all this happened in, suggesting this confrontation is more universal than unique, giving voices of tolerance to both sides of that divide. But the violence — a gruesome massacre of other Europeans is shown, in detail — drowns out those voices, even the ones raised in prayer or song.
Director: Xavier Beauvois
Running time: 2:02
Rating: PG-13 for a momentary scene of startling wartime violence, some disturbing images and brief language