The recently released DVD of the highly praised 2010 French film, Of Gods and Men, affords a unique opportunity for people to see and experience what it was like for Cistercian Trappist monks in Algeria to live and die for their faith.
Of Gods and Men is a drama film directed by Xavier Beauvois, starring Lambert Wilson and Michael Lonsdale. Its original French title is Des hommes et des dieux, which means "Of Men and of Gods" and refers to a motto from the Bible shown at the beginning of the film. It centers on the monastery of Tibhirine, where nine monks lived in harmony with the largely Muslim population of Algeria, until seven of them were kidnapped and assassinated in 1996 during the Algerian Civil War.
The film tells a story that is primarily about a peaceful situation between local Christians and Muslims before it became lethal due to external forces. The screenplay focuses on the preceding chain of events in the decay of the government, the expansion of terrorism and the monks' confrontation with both the terrorists and the government authorities that led up to their deaths. Principal photography took place at an abandoned monastery in Azrou, Morocco with careful attention to authenticity.
Greg Erlandson noted in a recent edition of Our Sunday Visitor (OSV) “Such a description does the movie an injustice, for it is a beautiful, profound meditation on Catholic faith and witness, on the spiritual journey of monasticism and on the challenge of being men of peace in a time of cruel violence” (OSV, July 24, 2011, page 18).
Erlandson correctly notes that Of Gods and Men is a most un-American movie. (It was nominated from France for the Academy Award for best foreign film but it did not make the list of the five finalists!) There is no sex, no fast car chase, no large explosions, no large musical score to drown out every inch of the film in noise, etc. The music score is mostly monastic singing and chanting! The film tells a beautiful and moving story by weaving together scenes of monastic prayer with scenes of work and witness in a Muslim land. Simply put the film shows what it means to truly follow Christ into the hardest places and then to live and die for the glory of God!
I saw the film in a small art theater with only a handful of viewers present. There was a silence about the film and the theater that was uncommon. The prayers of the monks, the process by which they slowly and carefully made their decision to remain in their monastery when they knew that they could die and the struggles of fear and dark nights of the soul all pervade their story. (By the way, we know the true story because one monk escaped capture and was able to tell a great deal of it in writing. Some parts, for example how the men died, remain unknown.)
Reviewers responded to the film in various ways. One said you could sum it all up by saying the story was about a group of old men too set in their own ways to save themselves when they clearly could have lived and gone free. To him these foolish old men died needlessly. Another reviewer said the real problem in the story is religion since it is religion that endorses so much killing. I honestly wonder what film this critic actually reviewed, or if he even saw this film.
Roger Ebert offered a thoughtful review, though one we should consider as Christians living in modern America. His comments should cause Christians to seriously discuss this “American” perspective. Ebert wrote:
Did they make the right choice? [To remain in their place and face death willingly?] In their own idealistic terms, yes. In realistic terms, I say no. They have the ability to help many who need it for years to come. It is egotism to believe their help must take place in this specific monastery. Between the eight of them, they have perhaps a century of life of usefulness remaining. Do they have a right to deprive those who need it of their service? In doing so, are they committing the sin of pride?
Roger Ebert is an admittedly secular film critic (and often a very good one). He speaks here about what is realistic and what is sinful. I found this very surprising to be honest. His argument is typically American: pragmatic and utilitarian. His view is that a monastery in a remote part of Algeria is valuable only to the extent that it dispenses free medicine to the poor and thus can actually help people. We respect this kind of help as a culture. But we have no understanding at all of the deeper meaning of a life of solitude and monasticism.
Erlandson suggested in his OSV review, “A Band of Brothers,” that this response raises an interesting question: Should we seek the world’s approval since the world will never understand our choices and lifestyle? If we try to explain the gospel in pragmatic and utilitarian terms the world will still be unconvinced.
Of Gods and Men offers the world a response to suffering, pain and purpose that the world will not hear from pragmatic, market-driven Christianity. I suggest you see it and I also suggest you show it to young adults and discuss it. This goes for both Catholic and Protestant readers.