OF GODS AND MEN (Des Hommes et Des Dieux) Movie Review
“Les hommes ne font jamais le mal si complètement et joyeusement que lorsqu’ils le font par conviction religieuse.”
“Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”
This quote encompasses the primary message of the French film OF GODS AND MEN (Des Hommes et Des Dieux), written and directed by Xavier Beauvois (“The Young Lieutenant,” “According to Mathieu”).
Loosely based on a true story from the 1990s, we follow the lives of a group of French Christian monks living a harmonious, symbiotic existence with their Muslim brothers and sisters in the mountains of Algeria. The religiously motivated massacre of a group of foreign workers strikes fear throughout the region and leads each monk to question both his own reason for remaining there and his dedication to his faith, knowing that the stakes may well be their lives.
As “Christian,” the unambiguously symbolically named leader of the monastery, Lambert Wilson’s performance is an understated portrait of strength. Trying at once to hold his order together with religious discipline while walking a line between an authoritarian and a democratic approach to crucial decisions, we see on his face in every scene the awful responsibility he feels, whether the decision is to stay or to go.
But it is the performance of Michael Lonsdale (“Ronin,” “The Remains of the Day,” “Moonraker”) as Luc, the monastery’s overwhelmed doctor, that earns the film its warmth and compassion. Ministering to the growing medical and psychological needs of the Muslim community in which he lives, Luc struggles alone in a war zone, forced by his own vows and conscience to treat the very terrorists who are throwing his world into bloody chaos.
This film is a thinker, and Beauvois makes sure we have time to do it while the reels run. There are moments captured by cinematographer Caroline Champetier among the hills and trees of North Africa that lull us into a meditative state with their natural beauty and peace. There’s perhaps one too many shots of the monks simply praying or singing in their chapel, not to move forward the story but to provide atmosphere and give his audience a pause to feel the tension building toward an inevitable confrontation, which we dread may be an example of the evil that men do to each other in the name of god.
But on a deeper level, the film shows us that one could easily enlarge the scope of Pascal’s sentiment, delivered by Christian to his fellow monks toward the end of the film, to include an explanation for not only the evil that men do, but any otherwise inexplicable, out-of-character behavior, be it inhumane violence or an unreasonable adherence to faith itself.