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Of Gods and Men: A Review

In 1996, the Catholic world was stunned when seven Trappist monks were kidnapped and murdered by extremists in Algeria. Last September, Of Gods and Men (or Des Hommes et des Deiux) was released in France, a film by director Xavier Beauvois depicting the last three years of the monks’ life together prior to their abduction. European film critics have called it a “masterful drama,” and it was winner of the prestigious Grand Prix during the 2010 Cannes Film Festival.

I saw Of Gods and Men twice while it was showing in London cinemas over the Christmas holidays. There was something in it the first time that I wanted to see again—the integrity of a faith devoid of religious triumphalism, yet pregnant with authentic spiritual courage.

Lambert Wilson plays Brother Christian, superior of the Monasteri d’Atlas in the rural mountain village of Tibherine, where a community of brothers live and run a small medical clinic for their friendly Muslim neighbors. But their idyllic existence is threatened when a group of violent fundamentalists begins to terrorize the local Muslim population. When foreign construction workers have their throats cut, the brothers are warned of their imminent danger and faced with the painful decision of whether to stay in Algeria or flee to safety. Either choice will come at great personal expense. As monks in the Benedictine tradition, these Trappists are committed to stability, and to uproot themselves and abandon the community to which they have bound themselves through prayer and friendship is almost unthinkable. And yet to stay seems equally impossible—maybe even foolish. The youngest monk, Brother Christophe, is forthright when he says to his brothers in council that he did not come to Algeria to “commit collective suicide.”

Of Gods and Men is not an action film. It is methodical and captivating, uniquely drawing its viewers into the monks’ own rhythm of prayer and work. I almost forgot I was in a theater the first time I saw it, and among the fellow film-goers I have spoken to, I haven’t found a single one who wished the plot would speed up. The tension outside the monastery walls is masterfully portrayed across the face and within the prayer life of each brother as he quietly plums the depth of his own human frailty during the daily routine of the monastery.  The complex and heavy interior turmoil of Brother Christian is tenderly matched with the raw angst of Brother Christophe, who struggles with a genuine crisis of faith and vocation throughout a good portion of the film.  In one scene Christophe speaks freely with his superior about his doubts, asking whether it is not crazy to stay at the monastery given the dangers confronting them. “It is crazy,” replies Christian. “Almost as crazy as becoming a monk in the first place.” Then he adds meaningfully, “Don’t forget that you have already given your life.”

The monks of Tibherine present us with a very accessible sort of sanctity. At one point in the film Christophe, seeking desperately for some authority on which to restabilize his failing faith, mentions to weathered old Brother Luc that he thought Christian’s message in chapel was very good that morning. Luc, who apparently thought Christian’s message was too highfalutin for their present circumstance, asks Christophe honestly, “Did you understand any of it?” Christophe suddenly snaps and tells Luc to “F-off,” who in turn excuses Christophe on the pretext that he is under a lot of pressure. Perhaps, really, the most moving aspect of the film is that understanding and compassionate bond shared between the brothers— the grace by which they are able to live in community with one another. There is tenderness and respect between the young and the very old, the sick and the healthy, the faithful and the floundering.

Moviegoers should be forewarned about the “last supper” scene near the end of the film. On the evening the regional superior shows up with supplies for the monastery, the brothers put austerity aside to feast on their very richest food and feelings. Wine is drunk, laughter shared and tears cried against the backdrop of a very bold Tchaikovsky (“The Dying Swan”)—a scene some critics have praised and others have deemed a bit over the top. I remain undecided.

If you are looking for a cinema experience that is thoughtful and deeply human, I highly recommend Of Gods and Men. Released in the U.S. on February 25, it should be playing at a theater near you.


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