The true story of seven French monks in Northern Africa who in 1996 were kidnapped and murdered by Islamic extremists, Xavier Beauvois’s in-competition Of Gods and Men is, no more and no less, a handsomely mounted French prestige picture. Never less than perfectly competent, it’s still somber and respectful to a fault: the Cannes equivalent of Oscar bait.
Beauvois models his film’s rhythm on the monastic life, and a few moments in the monastery toward the beginning of the film have a similar meditative rhythm as Philip Gröning’s marvelous Into Great Silence. But that comparison soon falls apart, as Beauvois is less interested in humanizing the monks (played by an experienced cast of French actors that includes Lambert Wilson and Michael Lonsdale) than in sanctifying them.
Their sacrifice—despite orders from the military to return to France, the monks stay in Africa, knowing full well they will probably not survive—may indeed have been a noble one, in keeping with their commitments to their community and their faith, but it can’t have been an easy one to make. But with the exception of a few scenes of the monks discussing the decision, we never actually see them struggle with the choice. Beauvois treats them as nobly suffering martyrs rather than as human beings, a fundamentally anti-dramatic choice that renders their decision a foregone conclusion and prevents Of Gods and Men from carrying anything close to the spiritual weight Beauvois intends.