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Review: Of Gods and Men (2011)

Of Gods and Men (2011)

Directed by: Xavier Beauvois

Premise: Based on a true story, a group of monks living in a monastery adjacent to an Algerian town debate whether to stay or flee as violent religious fundamentalists close in.

What Works: Spirituality is a tough subject to address in cinema. Unlike the written word, which allows for greater flexibility and understatement, motion pictures literalize and concretize their subjects and so the construction of meaning is often times much more straightforward. Part of the allure of spiritual traditions is their mystery and literature is generally more amendable to that. Of Gods and Men is an attempt to use cinema to explore spiritual issues and the film largely succeeds. The picture is about where faith and practice meet and the conflicts of the movie arise out of the difficulty in reconciling the two. Of Gods and Men takes place in an Algerian monastery where violent religious fundamentalists are getting closer and eventually demand the monks provide medical help to their injured comrades. The monks recognize the danger to them and to the community and debate whether or not they should flee. Of course they don’t and the monk’s pacifism is a challenge to viewers in two way. First, it is a movie that defies the knee-jerk violence that defines so much of cinema, especially from Hollywood. In most pictures it is a foregone conclusion that terrorism must be met with violence; that isn’t an unreasonable response but filmmakers typically reach that conclusion by shooting first and asking no questions at all. Second, the filmmakers behind Of Gods and Men do not engage in moral or spiritual grandstanding. When filmmakers tell religious stories they typically subscribe to the great-man theory and when they deal with religious persecution it is typically done in a self-aggrandizing way. Part of the problem with the great man theory is that it supposes that only the elites of society are able to cope with the world’s problems and when they do so it is with bombast. The self-aggrandizment of religious persecution narratives turns sacrifice into martyrdom and in the process the stories becomes less spiritual and more political. The monks of this film are pensive men who do not want to die and they remain very human characters but their choice to live out their commitments to their faith and to human dignity put them on a crash course with less tolerant people. It is the everyday grind in which the monks toil and their sense of duty to the community and to humanity in which the spirituality of this film is ultimately found.

What Doesn’t: Of Gods and Men is a quiet and contemplative movie. The content of the film frequently alternates between long sequences in which the monks and the townspeople go about their day and extended dialogues as the monks debate amongst themselves. The intent here seems to be to invoke the tone of the monastic lifestyle and the combination successfully juxtaposes the theory with the practice. But for some audiences, Of Gods and Men may come off too cerebral. To some extent that criticism can be dismissed as the complaint of impatient viewers but there is a serious point to be taken. The lifestyle of these monks—and the corresponding tone of the film—are far departed from the reality of most people’s lives and the culture in which we live. For that reason, some viewers (especially affluent American audiences) may struggle to recognize what Of Gods and Men is trying to impart about life and spirituality. To that extent, the movie’s generousness of spirit is in some ways maddening. These monks put themselves in harm’s way and they recognize the humanity in people who deny theirs. Whether this is truly spiritual enlightenment or just dangerous naiveté is debatable.

DVD extras: Featurettes, trailers.

Bottom Line: Of Gods and Men is a challenging film, one that deals seriously with spiritual and religious themes. However viewers might believe or not believe, this is a film that raises questions about what it is to be spiritual and does so much more effectively than a lot of pictures that are marketed specifically to religious audiences. Of Gods and Men is more demanding of viewers than audiences are probably used to but it is worth the effort.

Episode: #486 (April 13, 2014)