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Movie Review

Of Gods and Men

‘Of Gods’ a spiritual journey to the unknown

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By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / March 18, 2011

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The air that “Of Gods and Men’’ breathes is so clean and so cold that it feels like a fresh beginning. The irony and the ecstasy of this beautifully shot, intensely affecting movie, however, is that the end is rapidly approaching for its characters, French Cistercian-Trappist monks caught up in the Algerian civil war of the 1990s. Xavier Beauvois’s film, a Grand Prix winner at Cannes last year, is a dramatic interpretation of actual events — some known, others guessed at — that could have been a foursquare tale of Christian martyrdom. Instead, it’s something stranger, deeper, and richer: an experience that takes us right up to the edge of human experience and peers into the unknown.

The monks have for years run a monastery-clinic in a mountain village, and the local Muslim villagers have come to rely on and love them. When “Of Gods and Men’’ opens, the area sits on the fault line between the guerrillas’ territory and government influence; a group of Croatian immigrant laborers is brutally murdered by Islamist rebels in one early scene. Both sides consider the brothers an active annoyance. Both sides, in fact, urge them to get the hell out. So why don’t they?

That debate — among the monks, within their souls, in the heads and hearts of the audience — unfolds during the first two-thirds of this exaltingly patient movie. The head of the monastery, Christian (Lambert Wilson, the Merovingian of the “Matrix’’ movies) is an austere man of spirit and intellect who studies the Koran and is fascinated with Islam — he wishes he could see it as God does. He announces to the local government minister that the monks won’t be going anywhere, which prompts a fiery response from some of the other brothers. “I didn’t come here to commit collective suicide,’’ insists the young Brother Christophe (Olivier Rabourdin).

Others are more circumspect. The aging Brother Luc runs the clinic and is the closest to the villagers; played by the great French character actor Michael Lonsdale, he’s the heart of the movie, a shambling old bear who has come too far to turn back. Brother Luc quotes Pascal at one point — “Men never do evil so cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction’’ — and he says it with no specific faith in mind and all of them.

At the same time, the film moves slowly toward the ecstatic freedom of pure love, as the monks come to understand that their presence is keeping the villagers from harm rather than the other way around. Each of the seven men occupies a different point on the graph, and so “Of Gods and Men’’ explores cowardice, bravery, faith, pride, foolhardiness, and profound despair. Brother Christophe enters a dark night of the soul, praying yet hearing nothing. Brother Célestin (Philippe Laudenbach) comes to terms with his fear. “Of Gods and Men’’ judges no one, not even the crude rebel warlord (Farid Larbi) who turns up demanding his wounded men be treated.

If you saw the transporting 2007 documentary “Into Great Silence,’’ you may be better prepared for the meditative pace of this movie. Beauvois and his gifted camerawoman, Caroline Champetier, follow the daily rituals of the monks, steeping us in the echoing sounds of bells and Gregorian chants, observing the minutiae of beekeeping; they ask us to slow it down until we can see and hear and feel. Like the best spiritual movies, of whatever faith, “Of Gods and Men’’ moves us toward a union with the infinite, and when we come to the monks’ last supper, the moment is staggeringly powerful.

Understanding they’ve been abandoned by the government, the brothers drink wine and listen to Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.’’ The scene plays without dialogue and at daring length, the camera passing from one face to the other as each man looks into the abyss and feels simultaneous joy and sorrow. Their emotions and the scene as a whole build toward something much vaster than words. It may even occur to you that this is why religion was invented. That, and the movies.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. To follow him, go to www.twitter.com/tyburr.

OF GODS AND MEN

Directed by: Xavier Beauvois

Written by: Beauvois and Etienne Comar

Starring: Lambert Wilson, Michael Lonsdale

At: Kendall Square, West Newton

Running time: 122 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (a momentary scene of startling wartime violence, some disturbing images, brief language)

In French and Arabic, with subtitles

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