Of Gods and Men concerns Catholic monks and the film reflects their lives of quiet, calm and order. Considering the movie is based on the real-life murder of these monks 15 years ago in Algeria during the civil war, it is a calming and spectacularly life-affirming picture.
Slowly and surely, filmmaker Xavier Beauvois brings a viewer into the everyday lives of these French priests, far from home as they are and working hard to be in the world but not of it.
Their lives consist of tough physical work -- for themselves and others -- and contemplative thought and prayer. They grow food and contribute to the lives of the impoverished Muslim villagers who are their neighbours; Father Luc (Michael Lonsdale) runs a medical clinic in the village, but the monks also find shoes for those who need them or help the locals with paperwork and documents. Near the beginning of the movie, one of the villagers (Abdelhafid Metalsi) makes sure the priests are coming to a celebration for his young son. They all live in harmony with one another.
Christian (Lambert Wilson) is a leader at the monastery, elected by the other monks to be their spokesperson. There is turmoil in the area; it's a time in the war when foreigners have been told to leave the country, and Christian and some of the village elders talk about the trouble on both sides. A group of Croatians is killed by an Islamic fundamentalist group, and the monks meet to talk in earnest about what they should do next. Stay or go? The violence involved is anathema to them, so they don't want police protection either, and they certainly don't want to be protected by the army.
On one hand, the monks know that their presence helps protect the villagers from extreme factions. On the other hand, a Christmas Eve visit from the head of the fundamentalist group lets the monks know they are in grave danger. Each of these holy men must decide for himself what to do next, and each struggles with his decision. How do they do the right thing?
Which choice is best for body and soul?
Among other subjects, Of Gods and Men addresses death, something more or less absent from consideration in contemporary life. In a scene that is little more than the camera lingering on each of the monk's faces, the men celebrate a sort of last supper together, complete with wine brought to the table by Father Luc and the music of Swan Lake. It is a transcendent moment.
Of Gods and Men is not about religion but it does concern itself with faith, hope and love, not to mention history and politics. The movie (which is in French and Arabic with English subtitles) was named best foreign language film by the National Board of Review. It also won the Grand Prix and the Ecumenical Prize at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival.