The subject of faith should really be incompatible with cinema. The internal, silent struggles of religious men are seemingly completely at odds with visual excitement or insight, while a profound topic can often be dealt with all too flippantly or resolved far too tritely when presented on celluloid. Yet with Of Gods and Men, director Xavier Beauvois has shown that little needs to be said in order to portray compellingly the Manichean struggle between mortality and immortality. It is a film concerned largely with indecision, as psychological and spiritual turmoil are emblazoned painfully across the lined, ancient faces of its ensemble cast, and is a testament to the mantra that less is undoubtedly more.
Set in an Algerian monastery in the Atlas mountains, the film patiently shows us the ascetic, exacting existences of the seven monks who live there. For the first half an hour, the camera merely follows the monks as they go about their daily rituals – praying, bee-keeping, reading, ploughing the fields – and avoids any obvious or forced drama. These are men whose lives are lived at a slower, more considered pace, and Beauvois never allows his film to out-run its subjects. Indeed, the camera rarely moves, while there is no soundtrack or incidental music.
Yet rather than boring its audience, this artistic minimalism and reserve pay off greatly. From the first shot, there is an invaluable sense of authenticity being created, while this is aided by the impressively naturalistic performances of the central cast and an intelligently restrained script. Exposition is never indulged in, as the film shows rather than tells.
Soon, conflict arrives in the form of Islamic extremism. Villagers are being threatened and occasionally murdered, while in one particularly traumatic scene, an entire group of Croatian workers have their throats slit, with Beauvois dislodging the camera from its previously static position to lend the moment a sense of documentary-like realism. This violence that explodes so unexpectedly – and briefly – is completely at odds with the innocent, peaceful existence within the monastery, and is thus all the more effective. With the terrorists as a growing threat to the village and the monastery, the monks struggle to decide whether to return to France or remain where they are, and it is this dilemma that is the main focus of the film.
A great deal of Of Gods and Men is taken up by the silent prayers of the monks, and it is these scenes that are perhaps the most gripping and tragic of the film. The camera watches as men wordlessly kneel, heads bowed, and lingers as the silence gets louder and louder. They pray to an unresponsive, unsympathetic darkness, and Beauvois never hints at any divine presence or revelation, thus introducing an element of tragedy in their devotion. Indeed, the monks themselves acknowledge this fear, with one of the youngest brothers tearfully admitting, ‘I pray and I hear nothing.’
Yet despite examining faith in great depth, this is not a film concerned with the existence of God. Instead, its focus lies with brotherhood, friendship and love, and it deals with these subjects in a moving, subtle way. Its approach to these themes is one of sober maturity and patience, with only the ‘last supper’ scene indulging in anything approaching sentimentality (though by this point, Beauvois has undoubtedly earned the right to do so). Yet despite – or perhaps because of – such reserve in its story-telling, one cannot help but be gripped as time rapidly begins to run out for the monks, and the audience feels increasingly trapped within the confines of the monastery. With the internal struggles of each character etched onto their weathered faces, their dilemma becomes utterly compelling, while their struggle with faith is both fascinating and familiar. In its approach to religious faith, extremism, conflict and brotherhood, it is difficult to think of a film more profoundly relevant to the times in which we live.