Monastic life is anything but tedious in Xavier Beauvois' masterful drama "Of Gods and Men," based on the real-life tragedy of seven French monks abducted and beheaded during Algeria's civil war in 1996.
The film is largely built of ordinary tasks and everyday moments: monks tending their crops, treating Muslim villagers at the monastery clinic, caring for their beehives and taking the honey they produce to market, sharing simple meals, and, of course, chanting in devotion during Mass.
Underlying all this is a tangible, terrible tension. These good Christians know there are forces — both in the besieged government and among terrorists who want to bring it down — that no longer want them there. And the atrocities happening all around them — Croatian construction workers whose throats are slit, young women shot dead because they were not wearing veils — make it unbearably clear to the monks that their lives are in danger each day they choose to stay.
Martyrdom is not something for which any of these unassuming, very frightened men signed up. Their crises of faith range from virtually none at all (one or two unflinchingly say at the outset that it's their duty to God and humanity to remain at their posts) to quivering terror (some monks confess at the start they want to flee to safety).
What follows is a truly glorious story of brotherhood, no matter what you think of the monks' faith, servility or judgment, or their choice to sequester themselves in celibacy in the first place. These are men battling to validate the place they have made for themselves in this life, and watching that struggle, foreign though it is to those of us in the secular world, is fascinating.
Written by Beauvois and Etienne Comar, the mostly French-language film is filled with melodic, joyous invocations as the monks sing praise to God and pursue somber, lyrical discourses as they debate their plight and ask heaven for guidance.
Lambert Wilson as head monk Christian and Michael Lonsdale as monk-physician Luc lead a cast that is, without overstatement, divine. The filmmakers chose a range of faces with wonderful expressiveness, the actors revealing tortured souls and soaring spirits, sometimes in the same instant, without saying a word.
The monks don't speak their minds often, but when they do, the actors infuse their utterances with bottomless grace and humility yet very human dread and doubt. These are not saints or angels but men who fear death as much as the next guy.
To the Muslims living nearby, though, the monks are saints, providing medical services and counsel without the slightest preaching of their own faith. The monks are utterly unbiased: Scared as they are when terrorists turn up, the monks will as readily treat a rebel's gunshot wound as a local child's skin condition.
Beauvois is deliberately hazy about the circumstances of the monks' deaths, which were blamed on a radical group, though some observers have suggested the Algerian military was involved.
The story is less about specific enemies and more about the denial of enmity — the certitude that devotion is devotion, which should not waver when circumstances are troubling or threatening.
The film won the second-place prize at last May's Cannes Film Festival and was France's entry for the foreign-language honor at the Academy Awards. It's a sin against "Of Gods and Men" that it did not make the list of nine Oscar finalists, let alone take one of the five nominations.
But you can help Hollywood atone: Go see this rapturous movie.