March 13, 2011

MOVIES: Of Gods and Men (Xavier Beauvois, 2010/US 2011)

Based on actual events about a group of French monks murdered by terrorists in Algeria in the mid-1990s. It's worth noting that I only knew where and when the movie was set because I'd read articles about the movie. The events were apparently big enough news in France that the audience didn't need any explanation, but it would have been helpful for American audiences to include a simple "Algeria, 1996" subtitle at the beginning.

There are eight monks, and they have made a comfortable place for themselves in a mostly Muslim community. They support themselves by selling honey and other farm products at the local market, and Brother Luc (Michael Lonsdale) runs a medical clinic for the villagers.

But political turmoil has come to Algeria, and a group of extreme Islamic terrorists kills a group of Croatian guest workers. The monks realize that they may not be safe in the new political environment, and they debate whether or not they should stay. The leader of the group is Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson), who is determined to stay; gradually, the rest of the monks come around to his point of view.

The movie is rather flat dramatically. Lonsdale and Wilson are the only actors given real characters to play, and they're fine; Lonsdale makes the bigger impression as the sweetly avuncular doctor/monk. The other characters never rise above the level of Generic Monk #1 or Terrorist #3. There's no passion to the monks' debates about staying or leaving, and no real discussion of just how high the stakes might be.

Your reaction to the actual story, I think, will depend on your level of faith. If you are a believer, you may be moved by the monks' martyrdom and their devotion to their community. If you are, like me, not a believer, you are more likely to see these events as an illustration of the level of foolishness men will stoop to in pursuit of their superstitions. When you have one group of men willing to kill for their fairy tales, and another group willing to die for theirs, you're not going to have a happy ending.

No comments: