This is a quiet, meditative French film from 2010 that recreates a 1996 incident in which Trappist monks from France were kidnapped from their monastery in Algeria by Islamic fundamentalists. Such a description may understandably lead you to believe that a film about said incident might not be quiet and meditative. Yet “OF GODS AND MEN” focuses the majority of its screen time on the inner life of the monastery and of the mental turmoil in the minds of the monks as they come to realize their way of life is coming into extreme danger from the clash of civilizations right outside their hillside door. The backdrop is an Algerian civil war between a more secular government and a radical, Taliban-like people’s army, and the encroachment of this battle onto the monks’ serene – dare I say monastic- lifestyle. Suprising to me, this is a very religious film that I can imagine being shown both in churches and hedonistic film festivals.
I found the film to be a little too deliberately meditative for my tastes. After the fourth or fifth lengthy singing/chanting interlude within the monks’ Algerian sanctuary, you’ve truly seen enough singing and chanting – but the filmmakers obviously believed that you needed to see some more regardless. There’s also a bizarre scene that goes on forever in which the monks wordlessly listen to “Swan Lake” at top volume during a meal with a mounting sense of dread and foreboding – which makes sense, considering that after this scene the inevitable kidnap finally comes, but it’s such a weird film-school type of scene that I found it pretty off-putting. With all my complainin’, though, I’ll admit that the performances are quite good as the monks consider their potential fate, and weight the option of staying vs. going – and wow, who knew that the Algerian countryside could be so beautifully filmed. Not me. I’m not sure I’d invest the two hours I spent in this one knowing what I know now, but I still have some level admiration for it in my hardened heart of hearts.