In the superb war drama Of Gods and Men, silence is louder than bombs 

The Valley of Shadows

The Valley of Shadows

It seems unlikely that French writer-director Xavier Beauvois set out to respond to current trends in American war movies — the stroboscopic hyperviolence, the videogame-derived verisimilitude. But his latest film is all the more gripping and memorable in light of them. Last year's Grand Prix winner at Cannes, Of Gods and Men is a story of war told not from the streets and fields where the storm was worst, but from its quiet eye. It affects us not with a barrage of brutally violent images, but with the knowledge that such horror swirls just beyond our sight — and with the pressure that builds as it closes in.

Set in mid-'90s Algeria during an ongoing civil war, the film focuses on a group of French Trappist monks who inhabit a monastery in an impoverished village under the growing threat of fundamentalist terrorism. As bloodshed rages outside, the monks hew to their sacred routine, followed by director Beauvois with a reverence to match his subjects. We never leave a moment of prayer or a group chant before "Amen," and it doesn't appear that even one is uttered outside of our presence.

This devotional quality is key to the movie's power. As the war closes in, the monks face a dilemma: Should they abandon the monastery, and the bedrock of faith they represent to the surrounding country, for the sake of their own safety — or stay, knowing they are unlikely to leave alive? They tell a villager that they are like birds on a branch, unsure whether to take flight, but the woman corrects them. "We are the birds," she says. "You are the branch."

As Of Gods and Men is based on true events, you may know their story. If you don't, you'll be better served by the film's telling than by a summary here. That said, it's the showing as much as the telling that creates the film's considerable impact. The title manifests visually as wide shots of biblically proportioned expanses, dotted with men who are not weak but acutely aware of their station. Caroline Champetier's cinematography is notable, but these landscapes (actually shot in Morocco) could hardly be diminished even if they were shot poorly.

The movie's sonic landscape is just as striking. The only music is the monks' Gregorian chants, their singing of the Cistercian liturgy, and an excerpt from Swan Lake that provides the backdrop to the film's most powerful scene. But the quiet of the monastery is no less important, and no less crucial to the movie's mounting unease. It represents the peace that stands to be shattered, as well as a spiritual force that registers as a silent but no less heroic resistance.

Perhaps the film's greatest triumph is that it doesn't reduce its characters to stereotypical pacifist weaklings or inscrutable holy men. The cast, led by Lambert Wilson and Michael Lonsdale, endows the men with a quiet strength and authority that makes them admirable but not superhuman. Indeed, it is their humanity that makes them so identifiable and so affecting, and in that regard Lonsdale is particularly remarkable. The actors show they understand the distinction in the title, and why it matters.

To the film's credit, the hot-button issues of Muslim-Christian relations and the distinction between peaceful Muslims and terrorists are neither ignored nor exploited. Beauvois trusts the audience to see them as part of the story's context, not its main thrust. The same is true of the violence, which we know is occurring but see only once. Some may allege that the film needs more visual evidence of the threat to justify its tension. But in refusing to sate the blood lust so often indulged by other war movies, Of Gods and Men engages the still-tender part of our souls, pricked by the mere suggestion of such brutality. It rewards the better viewer in us — the one who can feel without being hyperstimulated.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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