Inspired by the true story of eight Christian monks trapped in an Algerian warzone, Of Gods and Men is both devastating and hope-filled. It’s also one of the very best films of the year.
It’s 1993, and Islamists are inciting terror all throughout Algeria, as they attempt to bring the corrupt government to its news. Caught in the middle of the murder and mayhem are eight French monks who have dedicated themselves to serving the poor villagers around them.
As the violence draws closer, the brotherhood is faced with a tough decision: accept the advice of the army and get out or stay put and continue serving, despite the ever-present threat of death.
There’s a moment about halfway through Of Gods and Men when two monks are talking about the prospect of martyrdom and how “mad” it would be to stay at the monastery as death looms. Christian, the leader of the brotherhood, jokingly says that it would be “as mad as becoming a monk.”
And that’s the guts of this astounding film: taking us inside the worldview and thought processes of a group of men making decisions that appear to run counter to what virtually everyone else would choose. Who in their right mind would willingly stay in a place where a slit throat is a very real possibility?! And for that matter, who among us would be willing to forsake everything — money, leisure, family — for a life of manual labor and homilies and solitude and uncomfortable cots?
There is much to be admired in this film and plenty of moments that have the capabilities of hitting you in the sweet spot; that insight into what makes these remarkable men tick just happened to get me.
Of Gods and Men is “inspired by true events,” which is understandable as much of the truth behind the story is unknown. To tell the tale, writer/director Xavier Beauvois had to conjure some details — big ones granted; really, really, big ones actually — but he obviously did it with an eye to honoring the story of the monks. And as the accompanying making-of featurette shows, he connected with those closest to the monks to make sure he did right by them.
You’ll notice that I’ve gone through four paragraphs now and am tap-dancing around concrete plot details. A cursory Google search or a gander at a Wikipedia entry will reveal much, but I advise keeping as far away from plot points: the payoff will be worth it and that final, mesmerizing scene will leave you in a daze.
Two more things. One, this is one of the most substantial Christian films I’ve ever seen. And make no mistake, it is explicitly Christian, but it does not espouse a strain of Christianity that is tepid or watered-down or corny. This is the hard stuff, the struggle, the resistance, the doubt, and, ultimately, the fortification. Of Gods and Men is what needs to be watched by the faithful, not the low-impact fluff that passes for much of God-centered entertainment.
Two, I’m glad the film got a PG-13 rating. There is one F bomb (which is allowed), but also an intense sequence of violence that was borderline R-rated. Those are the sum total of “edgy” moments. Kudos to the MPAA for keeping this fantastic effort viewable for a larger audience.
Sony’s Blu-ray is okay. The 2.35:1, 1080p transfer is uneven, some moments reveling in gorgeous clarity and color and other — particularly the darker scenes and some longer, establishment shots — struggling to hold the line. In its more tenuous moments, the picture holds a fair amount of grain and even jitters from time to time. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio (French) does what it has to do, but this is a quiet film, its story told visually and through sparse dialogue; don’t expect a wall-rocking mix. Two extras: a featurette that fleshes out the story further and a dialogue with author John W. Kiser.
Not Guilty. Of Gods and Men is not to be missed: a powerful, provocative, sledgehammer to the soul.