REVIEW: Faith, Terror Collide in Stirring Of Gods and Men
The chanting of the monks in Of Gods and Men has an immense power -- it drives away doubts and cleanses their minds, leaving them opening for the possibility of sacrifice. Xavier Beauvois' film conflates the power of exultation and loss by having them intersect. What he creates is distinctive -- an ascetic melodrama that massages its way into your soul. And rising to the challenge in this fact-based story is Lambert Wilson in the role of a lifetime -- as Christian, the leader of the Algerian monks abducted by terrorists, he holds the screen with an empathetic magnetism.
The normally sly Wilson -- who was once in the running to play James Bond (Timothy Dalton was chosen instead) -- was directed by Beauvois to surrender ego. Wilson accomplishes this with a minimum of fuss. The tension grows in Gods as the monks have to decide whether their calling is worthy of the ultimate demand. Wilson's focus is such that the name Christian doesn't feel like a theatrical flourish (even though it was taken from the real life figure he plays, one of the seven monks of Tibhirine who were kidnapped in 1996).
It doesn't dwell on Christian, though; Wilson simply inhabits the center of the action. Rather, the movie takes time to present each of the monks. Luc's (the venerable Michael Lonsdale) ministrations with the local women and children relieve his weariness; the interactions give him serenity. (One of his lines from a conversation with a local woman -- "No use asking too many questions" -- ends up resonating throughout the film.)
And the village where they work -- the monastery produces honey -- has meaning for the monks. Gods unfolds slowly, so calmly that when the kidnappers roll into the story, it's a shock. And they take over the village -- and Gods -- like an infection. Their relationship to it informs the decisions they make at the hands of their kidnappers; though they weren't raised there, it has come to belong to them as well. Because of that attachment, Christian's demeanor is so compelling at one point, he seems capable of persuading the terrorists. The movie has a mournful electricity, as we come to realize it's about accepting the inevitable. For the monks in Of Gods and Men, it's also about doing so with Grace. And Beauvois makes that understandable, something that can be absorbed without a heavy coating of honey.