Directed by Xavier Beauvois, Des Hommes et de Dieux “Of Gods and Men” – a meditative film based on actual gruesome events – won a prize at the Cannes film festival for works fostering inter-religious understanding. Judged by an ecumenical jury, the pic recounts the lives and deaths in 1996 of a group of French monks who were massacred and beheaded in a Cistercian monastery Algeria in events that remain mysterious and controversial.
The film’s plot centers on the Catholic monks as they wrestle with whether to flee during a bloody conflict between Algeria’s army and Muslim jihadi insurgents, or to remain in their monastery from which they had ministered to their Muslim neighbors. The statement of the jury declared that "The deep humanity of the monks, their respect for Islam and their generosity towards their village neighbors make the reason for our choice." Moreover, wrote the jury, “This movie of great artistic value benefits from a remarkable group of actors and follows the daily rhythm of work and liturgy." The jury also commended two other films in competition for Cannes’ main prize, "Poetry" by South Korean director Lee Chang-Dong and "Another Year" by Britain's Mike Leigh.
A fratricidal war ensued in Algeria in 1992 when it became clear that a national election would usher in an Islamist government. The army intervened and cancelled the election; the ensuing war claimed the lives of over 200,000 people in a country of 27 million people. Whole villages and families were wiped out by the army and the Islamist insurgents, with each side blaming the other for excesses. In the case of the monks, the insurgents first claimed responsibility for the massacre of the seven monks, but a later claim by a former French military attaché that the Algerian army may have been responsible has since made the tragedy much more mysterious.
The film focuses on the daily lives of the monks as they face the possibility of deadly violence. Featuring prominent French actors Lambert Wilson (The Matrix) and Michael Lambert, directed Beauvois said of the film "What interested me was the story of these men, who they were, and the rest, well, we don’t really know," at a news conference. Beauvois, who also co-wrote the script with Etienne Comar, theorized that the monks’ deaths were the result of a blunder by the Algerian military. "The monks insisted on being extremely neutral, on not taking sides," Comar averred, "They called the terrorists ‘the brothers from the mountain’ and called the people from the army ‘the brothers from the plain.’ … It seems totally coherent for the movie to adopt their point of view."
Beauvois’ chief concern according to reviewers is on the monks’ own inner struggles, rather than the politics surrounding their deaths. Of the film Toronto Star reviewer Peter Howell Of Gods & Men "a beautifully acted and directed work of uplift and inspiration." However, Kirk Honeycutt of The Hollywood Reporter called the film "ponderous."
The movie does not shy away from the violence of the conflict. Indeed, the opening scenes depict Islamist terrorists slitting the throats of Croatian construction workers - friends of the monks. The precariousness of the monks' lives is obvious and lends poignancy to their struggles over their faith as they remain at their monastery to help local villages keep both the Algerian military and Islamist terrorists at bay.
The men debate and pray, and cry out to God to help them keep their faith to accept their eventual decision to stay in Algeria even as their fate becomes clear. Finally, the camera zooms in on their eyes, those windows of the soul where their moral dilemma plays out.
The film was shot in neighboring Morocco, and the director rebuilt a monastery near a town called Meknes to resemble the one that witnessed the murders of the monks in 1996. In Algeria, the security situation remains tense as Islamist terrorists linked to Al Qaeda remain active in the hills. "Some news stories have said that I filmed in Morocco because of security reasons, but in fact, I did not at all. I never had any intention of shooting anywhere else," Beauvois said. Even so, just this week a roadside bomb killed two Algerian soldiers and seriously wounded 18 in an attack blamed upon the Al Qaeda terrorists.
The film conjures up the austerity and peace of the Cistercian monastery where the French monks prayed and contemplated a world that finally consumed them. So closely did Beauvois conjure the life and spirituality of the monks that went on a monastic-like retreat himself in order to get closer to "the beauty of their faith." The actors, led by Lambert Wilson and Michel Lonsdale, also went on retreats to prepare for their roles. Said Wilson, "We sang the liturgical chants, we even became united in this aspiration toward something higher; we felt together as brothers. We even had a monastic consultant." He continued, saying that the film attempts to mirror the monastic life. "Monks live at this rhythm. It's exhausting, and they work, too." Wilson also plays another religious role, a 16th century Huguenot, in a second French film in competition, Bertrand Tavernier's "La Princesse de Montpensier."
Beauvois and Comar said they conducted extensive research into the slayings but intentionally avoided going into too much detail in the movie."We wanted the story to be as universal as possible," Comar said. "References to Algeria are clearly there, but we tried to open the film the most we could." Said Comar, "I had decapitated bodies, models made, but then I knew that was ridiculous. Then unexpectedly, it snowed." The snow provides a metaphor in the final scenes, that moved Comar to say “It happened just at the right moment. It was a state of grace."
In 1996, following the tragedy, Pope John Paul II spoke to the Cistercians (also known as Trappists) while reflecting on the words from the Gospel – “He who loves his life will lose it, while he who hates his life in this world, will keep it for eternal life. If someone wishes to serve me let him follow me, and where I am there also will my servant be. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him." (John 12:24-26). Said the pontiff at Tre Fontane in Rome, "At the end of the second millennium, the Church has become once again a Church of martyrs." (Tertio millennio adveniente, n. 37) The witness of the Trappists of Our Lady of Atlas takes its place alongside that of the Bishop of Oran, His Excellency Pierre Lucien Caverie, and of not a few other sons and daughters on the African continent who, during this period, have given their lives for the Lord and for their brothers and sisters, beginning with those who persecuted and killed them. Their witness is the victory of the Cross, the victory of the merciful love of God, who saves the world.”