Of Gods And Men

Of Gods And Men

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The French film industry is a long-established leader at seducing audiences with luminous pastoral scenes. Here, everything is rolling green fields, fragrant orchards, quaint little houses huddled together on a hillside. A group of monks duck awkwardly under a line of washing. An imam extols the virtue of humility. An elderly doctor treats his patients, even finding new shoes for one mother and her beaming little girl. It takes a while to realise that this is not France. We are in Africa, in the wake of French colonialism. And though things may look placid, there is real trouble on its way.

Based on the true story of eight Cistercian monks whose principles compelled them to make a stand against violence in a dangerous time, this film carries echoes of Nikos Kazantzakis' cult novel The Fratricides, sharing its spirituality and its flaws. True, the village here is a gentler place. The monks and the local imam are close friends; everyone is united in the service of one God and in a more human kind of service, caring for one another.

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But outside, on the fringes, ugly things are happening. We hear of it first in a conversation over tea. Just a fragment. A girl who was murdered on a bus because her attacker objected to her not wearing a veil. Later, Croatian workers killed in the fields. Two teachers killed because they told their students it's acceptable to fall in love. For the monks, all of life is about love. They cannot reconcile themselves to these evils done in God's name.

That dedication, that principle, can have difficult consequences in a world where not everyone cares for virtue. Before long, the monks have rebel soldiers at the door asking for their assistance. They are caught in the middle as two armies manouver around each other and the civilian casualties mount up. Should they stay or should they go? "We should not seek martyrdom," says the wary, measured Brother Christian. "You are our only protection," says the imam.

This is a story which must, of necessity, be slow. It's all about space and the awareness of possibility, potential freedom clashing with the desire to do what is right, even when that path is not always clear. Beautiful imagery and subtle acting sustain it well through much of this, but still the pace will be too slow for many. It is not an easily accessible film and to fully take in what it has to say requires considerable effort on the part of the viewer, a willingness to engage intellectually and spiritually.

In short, it will be lost on mainstream audiences, but it offers something unusual for the patient and the inspired. Whilst it's not the finest work of its kind, it has a poetic elegance that makes it a fine tribute to the real monks, and through this it reminds us that life and literature are not immiscible things, that what we contribute to a greater narrative can extend far beyond our own existence.

Reviewed on: 23 Nov 2010
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Based on a true incident, the film is set in a Cistercian monastery in North Africa in the 1990s, where eight French monks live in cordial harmony with the local population... and what happens when violence encroaches.
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London 2010

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