Into Great Silence, a documentary about a Catholic monastery in the French Alps, was a surprise Christmas success in the UK four years ago. At nearly three hours long, with the pace of a drowsy snail leading a funeral procession, it brought new meaning to the term "sleeper hit", and satisfied a need for contemplation in the middle of the seasonal blowout. That must be the rationale behind releasing Of Gods and Men at the same time of year.
Also set in a monastery, it is superficially a very different film - a fictionalised version of events that took place in 1996, when French Cistercian monks in Tibhirine, Algeria, refused to flee despite the violence engulfing the area. However, the pictures plainly share an awe for their subject. They marvel without analysis or criticism at the idea of unshakeable faith.
The Monastère de l'Atlas, perched above an Algerian village, is accessible by winding stone steps that call to mind the staircase to heaven in Powell and Pressburger's A Matter of Life and Death. The monks, including their leader, Christian (Lambert Wilson), and the elderly medic Luc (Michael Lonsdale), assist the Muslim villagers with everything from passport applications to health problems. They spend the rest of their time tending the gardens, selling honey, studying, singing and praying.
At the other end of the spectrum of religious devotion from the monks are the fundamentalist groups whose presence is undermining the region's peace. Tension between the government and fundamentalists reaches a peak with the killing of a group of Croatian immigrants. The monks are warned by officials that they could be the next target. Even so, Christian flatly refuses the offer of a military guard, unwilling to accept protection from corrupt politicians.
When the mujahedin arrive at the monastery on Christmas Eve demanding medical supplies, he shakes their leader's hand with only a moment's hesitation, knowing full well that it is the same hand that slaughtered the Croatians. Wilson plays the scene with a suppressed remorse - his face, both alert and reserved, conveys silently a level of turmoil that most actors can only achieve at full pelt.
The director and co-writer, Xavier Beauvois, is fortunate to have a cast capable of hinting at the contradictions he cannot bear to raise elsewhere. As the monks debate whether to stand their ground or escape to safer pastures, Beauvois shows surprisingly little interest in discovering the considerations that lie behind the prospect of being martyred. Hunger, another recent film about martyrdom, was careful to accommodate the character of a priest who offered a dissenting voice, but Beauvois is a flatly literal director.
When the brothers say they will pray for a murder victim, the subsequent shot shows them doing just that. Christian insists that "the Good Shepherd doesn't abandon his flock to the wolves", and a few minutes later he is seen wandering among sheep on a hillside. His respect for the Quran, and the ease with which he differentiates between Islam and those who pervert its teachings, is exemplary, but the essence of the monks as real, complicated people becomes gradually obscured by the film's blind admiration for them.
Beauvois is best known for Don't Forget You're Going to Die (1995), about a young man whose HIV-positive status does nothing to temper his recklessness. Somewhere around the end of that abrasive film, a voice seemed to whisper in Beauvois's ear: "Don't forget to make the audience cry." The same mantra echoes through Of Gods and Men, most obviously in a scene that will be remembered when the rest of the picture is forgotten, in which the brothers listen mutely and tearfully to a recording of Swan Lake as they contemplate their doom.
There's an argument to be made for going much further than Beauvois does. He shows the monks trudging off to meet their fate in a blizzard; they fade from view extremely prettily, unlike the Croatians, whom we see having their throats cut. In its own way, the film bestows on them a euphemistic send-off to set alongside Thelma and Louise or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Upsetting it may be, but it's still tasteful enough that it won't deter the Christmas crowds.