As far back as Carl-Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc in 1928, filmmakers have understood the affinity for cinema with religious contemplation and inspiration: People sit in the dark and gaze upward at flickering images that inspire awe, images that are both present and not present. Sometimes the object of our awe and adoration is merely George Clooney or Angelina Jolie, but because we gaze upward at them in the dark, we call them stars.
But the list of great films on religious subjects—films that have exploited the language of cinema to communicate the perspective of divinely inspired subjects—is a long one: In addition to the Dreyer film, a short list would have to include Roberto Rossellini's The Flowers of St. Francis, Robert Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest, Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, Bergman's The Seventh Seal. Even avowed iconoclasts such as Pasolini, Buñuel and von Trier made cinematic forays into religious passion. Not coincidentally, this film canon tends to be a Catholic one (Bergman, for one, was Lutheran); the Catholic liturgy and representation of human suffering transfers very well to cinema.
Xavier Beauvois' Of Gods and Men belongs to that tradition—and it brings that tradition into the messy violence of today's world. Loosely based on events that occurred in Algeria in the mid-1990s, it tells the story of a small group of Cistercian-Trappist monks who live near a remote village. The monks tend their gardens and produce honey for the village market, and they provide badly needed social services to the villagers, without proselytizing.
But away from this mountain idyll, a civil war is raging, and violent Islamist rebels are gaining ground against the corrupt military government (the filmmakers purposely, and with no loss to the story, avoid naming this Algeria-like country). When local Croatian NGO workers are brutally murdered in broad daylight, Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson) and his brethren know they are no longer safe in their mountainside monastery.
Despite the Islamophobia that has so far been a defining feature of the 21st century, this film doesn't turn on hatred between followers of Jesus and those of Muhammad. Indeed, the armed insurgents could just as well be Maoists or drug lords. In any event, the guerillas who lurk at the margins of this film view the monks not as religious enemies but foreign nationals—French citizens—who can be seized and used as hostages. Of Gods and Men is concerned about faith, courage and love. The group of eight men, all in their 50s or older, must confront their fear of death—and ready themselves to submit to it humbly, as witnesses to their vows. But no matter how they tell themselves that they should die as they profess to live, it's no easy choice when throat-cutting brutes are at the gate and the country's government is urging the monks to return to France.
It's a terrifying predicament, one that normal people would gratefully escape from. But the monks have vows to keep—accepting safety while leaving their poor neighbors behind would violate everything to which they've devoted their lives. The real-life monks knew they were in trouble, and one of them, a doctor (or doctor-like monk) wrote, "We are in a 'risky' situation but we persist in our faith and our confidence in God. It is through poverty, failure and death that we advance towards him."
Of Gods and Men begins slowly, capturing the unhurried rhythms of the monks' daily interactions among themselves and their neighbors. The violence builds and comes closer, and while monks urgently and sometimes angrily debate their options, they struggle to carry on with their work. The faces of the men, worn and haggard and resolute, become fixed in our minds as heroically ordinary individuals. Late in the film, as the men break bread and sip wine, someone puts Tchaikovsky on the record player. It's the second time in recent months—a ballet movie was the other—that we've heard this music in movie theaters, but it's the first time that the chords have accompanied true cinematic rapture.