Gravely serene and suffused with tenderness, Of Gods and Men takes the simple, profound stand that how a person of faith lives matters more than the circumstances of his death. I stick with the male pronoun here because this superb, award-laden French drama — a surprising omission among this year’s Foreign Language Film Oscar nominees — is so essentially about how men behave in the name of religious conviction.
The movie is loosely based on real events: In 1996, seven French Catholic monks in an Algerian monastery were kidnapped by Islamic terrorists and then disappeared, the circumstances of their murder unsolved. Prior to the abduction, the monks in Of Gods and Men know they’re in danger — even though they have lived in friendly harmony with their Muslim neighbors for years. For the group decision of whether to leave Algeria or stay, every man must first decide for himself, and the movie grants each the dignity of individual struggle. (The understated cast is led by The Matrix Reloaded’s Lambert Wilson as the elected head monk and Michael Lonsdale from Munich as the monastery’s aging doctor.) But it is their shared strength as a band of brothers humble before their Christian God — and indeed before the God of Islam — that may stir viewers to an awe that transcends skeptical opinions about religion or politics. That devotion is never so movingly expressed as when the men join in the beautifully plain chant that fills the soundtrack. Tchaikovsky trend alert: Secular music makes one emotionally climactic appearance when, having absorbed the consequences of their choice to stay in North Africa, the men share wine and listen to voluptuous music on an old tape deck. Their selection: Swan Lake’s grand theme, a button pusher in Black Swan. A?