“Your sacrifice will eventually be exploited,” someone warns Christian (Lambert Wilson), a Trappist monk whose Algerian monastery has an excellent chance of being massacred by a recent wave of Islamic extremists. Is Of Gods and Men one of the exploiters? Not necessarily. Based on a real-life incident that ended with seven of the monks beheaded, Xavier Beauvois’ film does somewhat distastefully treat its subjects as martyrs. It also saves it from worse exploiters, those with neither a sense of taste or of decency.
Paced ascetically, Of Gods and Men gets us rooted in the placid existence of the residents of the monastery of Tibhirine. When word spreads of fundies garroting foreigners, the monks—including Wilson and hulking teddy bear (and Bond villain) Michael Lonsdale—rather questionably choose to remain, partly out of reticence, partly because they’re a vital part of the otherwise Islamic community with whom they happily cohabitate.
Speaking dramatically, this is thin stuff: Essentially, we’re simply waiting for people to die. But Beauvois has two angles with which to compensate. First, it serves as a rejoinder to the cretinous likes of Newt Gingrich, Pam Gellar or Peter King, who would exploit the tale of nice monks wiped out by mean Islamists for their own cause. Beauvois goes to great length to distinguish between the vast majority of Muslims and the bad eggs that bigots employ to justify their bigotry—and even bothers to distinguish between the extremists, some of whom are more reasonable than others.
Second, it aims to depict inner peace in the face of almost assured tragedy. By the end, all of the Tibhirine monks have come to accept a grisly fate, but even Wilson, who’s on board from square one, visibly struggles with a position that may seem alien or insane to most people. The climactic “last supper” sequence, a wordless barrage of close-ups out of a Sergio Leone western, would work better without Swan Lake blaring, insisting poetry. The looks on the doomed monks’ faces—alternately projecting fear, pride and acceptance—says all that words or bombastic music selection ever could.