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Loosely based on the life of the Cistercian monks of Tibhirine in Algeria, from 1993 until their kidnapping in 1996, Of Gods and Men tells a story of eight French Christian monks who live in harmony with their Muslim brothers. When a crew of foreign workers is massacred by an Islamic fundamentalist group, fear sweeps through the region. The army offers them protection, but the monks refuse. Should they leave? Despite the growing menace in their midst, they slowly realize that they have no choice but to stay... come what may.
The monks at the Trappist monastery in Algeria seem almost to exist outside of time, so it may be a while before we recognize the 1990s as the setting for Of Gods and Men. And old traditions cannot escape new warfare in this stirring movie, based on a true story that happened at a remote enclave of peaceful, studious priests. These Christian monks minister to the largely Muslim and very poor villagers in their vicinity, a balance that is threatened by Algeria's Civil War. When nearby radical-Islamist insurgents begin killing foreigners, the monks must face a choice. Will they flee to safety--a perfectly rational and understandable decision that will leave the villagers without their only source of health care--or will they stay on, secure in their spiritual calling despite the possibility of abduction or murder? Director Xavier Beauvois makes an absorbing film from this question, and it's not at all difficult to understand why it became an unexpected box-office smash in France and ended up winning the Cesar award for best film of 2010. The film is beautifully cast, and sometimes Beauvois simply trains his camera on the lined, weathered faces of his priests, as though allowing those lines to tell the story. Heading the cast is Lambert Wilson of Matrix fame, who leads his men with an almost regal bearing, and veteran actor Michael Lonsdale, who quietly inhabits the role of the physician in the group. The film takes time out for quiet contemplation, as though understanding that the priests' suspenseful situation is only half the story. The wordless climax, which allows the men to be animated by the earthly pleasures of wine and Tchaikovsky, is something of a spiritual journey of acceptance all on its own. It's a moment you'll find very difficult to forget. --Robert Horton