Of Gods and Men/Des Hommes et des Dieux

 

Directed by Xavier Beauvois. Starring Lambert Wilson, Michael Lonsdale, Roschdy Zem, Olivier Rabourdin, Jacques Herlin. 120 min.

Xavier Beauvois, director of Don't Forget You're Going to Die and Le Petit Lieutenant, surges into the front rank of French film- makers with this thoughtful, unhurried meditation on the virtues and dangers of religious faith.

Coming from a largely secular country, whose film-makers rarely have anything to do with religion, Beauvois takes care to clarify that his monastic heroes are (even the most hardline Marxist might agree) good men as well as good Christians.

The film, set in Algeria in 1996, is concerned with a party of Cistercian Monks who have apparently been murdered by Islamic extremists. To that point, the picture argues, the men had maintained a very civilised relationship with their neighbours. Brother Luc, played with well-seasoned eccentricity by the great Michael Lonsdale, calls upon his medical training to treat the citizen's bunions and stomach aches. Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson), the monastery's head, displays a deep understanding of the Koran.

We suspect the balance is about to shift when, in a scene of unsettling brutality, a group of Croatian contractors have their throats slit by Armalite-wielding fanatics. Following that gut-churning outrage, the film settles into a tense - but sedate - examination of the pressures falling upon the monks. Most pressingly, they must decide whether to abandon their monastery and flee the increasing perilous territory.

Of Gods and Menhas obvious relevance in a country that - observe the controversy surrounding headscarves in French schools - has struggled more than most with conflicts between Christian values and those of Islam. Happily, Beauvois does not push the parallels and allows the film to develop as a mass character study first and as sociopolitical allegory second.

Perhaps one late sequence, consciously echoing the Last Supper, is a little too archly composed. Maybe the film slumps a tad in its centre. Of Gods and Menremains, however, a singular combination of meditative tool and subliminal thriller. Many are saying it could snatch the Palme d'Or from Mike Leigh's expectant hands.