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Another splendid and strange film from my list of international arthouse movies that I wanted to see for years. A group of Trappist monks are tending to their monastery in the hills of the Algerian hinterland. Civil War breaks out, and the local muslim extremists start getting on a rampage, killing guest workers and spreading fear among the locals. When they approach the monastery, the monks have to decide whether to flee or to make a stand.

That summary sounds about right, but is completely wrong. This is not a thriller, even though there is tension and fear. Whenever I thought the film might move into that direction (some form of “Assault on Precinct Jesus” would have been conceivable), the monks start praying for enlightenment, engage in lengthy debates about their moral obligations, commitment to their faith, and the role they have been given when joining the order. The conflict is stalled when Christmas comes around and there are more important things to do, such as celebrating holy mass, and the killer squad leader apologises for not having realised the importance of this, and steps back for the time being.

“Of Gods and Men” does not have the conflict between terrorists and monks at its heart, but the maybe more complicated conflict between people’s conscience, beliefs and human fears. These monks are no heroes, they are worried and scared, and they are complicated in their internal dynamics of making decisions, caught in some semi-democratic system of debate and criticism. Their leader may be weak, I kept wondering whether challenging his leadership would not have been the right thing to do. But they have a strong bond woven by their institution and their faith, which does not make such things come easily. They draw the strength they need from prayers, and from sitting around a table, listening to classical music.

It is very silent in dealing with these conflicts, but that does not make it less thrilling. The thrill is to realise that these are real people, faced with real dangers, having to make real choices with severe impact on their own life and on the life of the people they take care of. Whether in the end they make the right choices is ambiguous, you have to decide for yourself what you make of it.

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