Of Gods & Men -- Film Review



CANNES -- In 1996, seven French monks in Tibhirine, Algeria, were kidnapped and then later killed when negotiations broke down between the French government and a terrorist group.

Xavier Beauvois' "Of Gods & Men" is a methodical, heavy-with-purpose examination of the decision by the eight monks -- one escapes by hiding under a bed -- to stay in a violence-racked country rather than leave in the face of threats against foreigners by Islamic extremists.

You wouldn't want to call "Of Gods & Men" a drama for that implies characters and conflict. There is little of either here. The monks are indistinguishable from each other because of their piety and selflessness. And while one monk expresses his fears, the decision to stay is a foregone conclusion.

The warm applause after the film's Palais press screening suggests the French like their Catholic martyrs enough to support the film when it gets released in France on Sept. 8. Otherwise, the theatrical market for this ponderous film looks exceedingly thin.

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The problem is that a whiff of saintliness envelops the Cistercian monks right from the start. The doctor (Michael Lonsdale) ministers to the sick from a nearby village while their wise leader (Lambert Wilson) guides them in prayers and songs.

Occasionally, he strolls in the picturesque countryside, as the songs by a male choir fill the soundtrack. Presumably, he's pondering the monks' safety. Then again, who knows what he's thinking? All that can be said is that Beauvois, who co-wrote the script with Etienne Comar, avoids any real scrutiny of the monks' refusal to leave.

Since martyrdom is viewed as the only plausible outcome of this decision, it's a pity the director never analyzes it. No one presents any real argument for leaving. Nor does any one present any real reason to stay. What is gained by their deaths, for them or for the church? Will it do any good for the local community they profess to honor and serve? Does God even figure in the decisions? They say He does but how are they so sure?

There are eight individual decisions to be made here, yet Beauvois never humanizes any of his monks. The film instead consumes itself with songs, communal prayers and nightly meals.

So when snow starts to fall and the old doctor brings about a couple of good bottles of red and plays Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake," you know their goose is cooked.

Venue: Festival de Cannes -- Competition
Sales: Wild Bunch
Production companies: Armada Films, France 3 Cinema, Why Not Prods.
Cast: Lambert Wilson, Michael Lonsdale, Olivier Rabourdin, Philippe Laudenbach, Jacques Herlin, Loic Pichon, Xavier Maly, Jean-Marie Frin
Director: Xavier Beauvois
Screenwriters: Etienne Comar, Xavier Beauvois
Producer: Etienne Comar
Director of photography: Caroline Champetier
Production designer: Michel Barthelemy
Costume designer: Marielle Robaut
Editor: Marie-Julie Maille
No rating, 122 minutes