Des hommes et des dieux, shot by Caroline Champetier (Ponette, Jacques Doillon, 1996) is a beautiful and meditative essay on the strength of faith. It tells the story of a group of Cistercian monks whose community is challenged by violent fundamentalists in 90s Algeria - where they were forced to make a life changing decision. Many scenes take place in either conference or choir. There are several tense scenes of the monks debating their place in the Tibhirine monastery, when faced by violence. Will their faith begin to waver when faced with martyrdom? They know the correct thing would be to stay with their people, who are engaged in civil war (1991 - 2002, against Islamist rebel groups). It is this question, of faith in the path of adversity , which echoes through the silences of Des hommes et des dieux. The choir sections are powerfully harmonic, and provide the moments of peaceful salvation in the film. Although the film is delicate (most actors seem to speak in a whisper and the natural use of sound is lovely) there is an air of impending doom that makes the monks decision all the more troublesome. The pace is incredibly slow and although it does meander somewhat, the performances are terrific (Michael Lonsdale delivers his finest work in years) and it's very easy to feel for the plight of the characters.
There is one false note that threatens to bring the film down. The monks spend a final evening together (obviously allegorical of The Last Supper) and the camera slowly observes each of their faces. Had this scene been played in silence, it may have made the tragic denouement all the more powerful. But as Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake swells over the images of the men, the naturalness is interrupted by a woefully misjudged moment of Academy begging sentiment. The music crescendos over the one scene in the film that just had to be underplayed. It's laughable, frankly, and suddenly reveals that Beauvois doesn't have as confident a grasp on his material as was initially hinted. It's a step down from which the film never fully recovers, despite the brave ending. I applaud Les hommes et des dieux for its beauty, intelligence and honesty. I applaud it for its delicate and non-judgmental handling of difficult subject matter, and for not backing down from questioning faith. Most will be put off by the fact that it's in a foreign language (French) but you only need be wary of that final false step which distances rather than draws closer it's viewer - at the most crucially important point.