Arts & Events

Film Review: Of Gods and Men: A Tale of Christian Monks Caught in a Muslim Insurgency

By Gar Smith
Tuesday March 01, 2011 - 09:39:00 PM

“Of Gods and Men” opens at the Embarcadero in San Francisco on March 4 and at the Albany Twin on March 11.

A war film about monks may seem an odd choice for the big screen, but “Of Gods and Men” was the Grand Prize Winner at the Cannes Film Festival and went on to become France’s official selection for an Oscar as Best Foreign Language Film. Writer-director Xavier Beauvois’ challenging human drama is “loosely based” on the 1996 tragedy that befell an isolated band of Christian monks that became caught up in the war between the Algerian army and a Muslim insurgency. 

Until the outbreak of civil war, the eight French Cistercian monks had cared for the poor and sick while living in harmony with the families of the Muslim village of Tibhirine. But the new Islamic rebellion not only threatened the post-colonial status quo that sustained the monastery, it also threatened the people in the village that the eight robed men were committed to serve. 

In Beauvois’ film, the resulting ethical dilemmas force the monks to face some profound choices. Do we treat injured rebel fighters as we treat the people of the village? Do we abandon the village or do we risk becoming martyrs? And, if so, what’s the value of that? If we stay and are killed, how does that help the people? How does that elevate the Church? How, in the end, do our choices best “serve God”? 

After much debate and (quite literal) soul-searching, even the most practical and the most terrified of the brothers comes to the decision that they must stay, despite threats from both the Army and the insurgents. In an attempt to respect the humanity of both sides, the monks refer to the Army as “the brothers of the plains” and the insurgents as “the brothers of the mountains.” 

The monks face roadblocks, military checkpoints and rampaging high-noon killers with throat-slitting agendas. But some threats arrive quietly, by night and on foot. On Christmas Eve, a band of heavily armed rebels bursts into the monastery hoping to terrorize the monks and commandeer their precious cache of medicines. Brother Christian faces the rebel leader, clearly prepared to sacrifice his life before abandoning his principles. The two men wind up tensely quoting passages from the Bible and the Quran and find common ground. A confrontation that began with a brandishing of arms ends with a tense, brotherly handshake. 

This is a film that challenges the viewer to ask: “What would I have done in this situation?” With the loss of a onetime unquestioned assumption in the omnipotence and beneficence of God, these questions become harder to answer. One approach is to adopt a sort of holy nihilism. As Brother Luc puts concludes: “It is through poverty, failure and death that we proceed toward [God].” Or, as another brother intones, one can only follow the example of Jesus, “the Man of Sorrows who beckons us from the cross.” 

There is no denying the punch of the film’s soundtrack. Inside the cloistered monastery, the silence is broken only by the murmur of muted conversations and voices raised in choruses of “Salve Regina.” But, again and again, the sudden, explosive roar of gas-powered engines shatters the soothing equilibrium of these core scenes. These auditory jump-cuts will have some startled viewers jumping in their seats. A convoy of vans rumbles up a road. An armored vehicle rattles toward the screen. And nearly every time the silence is broken by the sound of an engine, it signals the arrival of some new threat. 

In the silence of their duties, the monks find strength in the songs of Christian communion. And the songs become a greater source of strength as the war rises around them. In one stunning scene, a helicopter gunship slowly drops from the sky with the monastery in its sights. As the walls around them tremble, the brothers form a line, link arms and raise their voices in what could be their last chorus of “Save us, Lord, whilst we watch! Keep us, Lord, whilst we sleep!” 

Ultimately, the monks are left to face their sacrificial destiny as they embark on a forced march into the shroud of history. But before that happens, there is one of the most transcendent moments in cinema. One evening, as all gather for what may be their Last Supper, Brother Luc dispenses with the regular ritual and instead appears with two special bottles of wine and a boom box. He sets the volume to “loud” and joins the table as the full measure of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” spills into the hall like an orchestral flood. The men and the audience are buffeted by the emotional blows of this wrenching score that seems to simultaneously proclaim that all life is doomed and all life is sacred, beatific and profound. 

Knowing that he was facing death, the monastery’s leader, Brother Christian, left behind a message to his friends, and his family. It read, in part: “This country and Islam, for me, are … a body and a soul…. I don’t see how I could ever rejoice in this people I love being indistinctly accused of my murder.” And he adds a message to the man who would eventually kill him: “In this thank you, I include you as well, friend of the last minute, who knew not what you were doing…. May we meet again, happy thieves in paradise, if it pleases God, the Father of us both. AMEN! INCH’ALLAH!” 

Postscripts: The actual fate of the monks remained a mystery since their disappearance on March 26, 1996. Their severed heads were subsequently discovered along a roadside near Médéa. Their bodies were never found. The Groupe Islamiste Armée claimed responsibility for the kidnapping but the Army (which had a reputation for kidnappings and brutal murders) was also suspect. In 2005, the Algerian government outlawed any investigations into the matter but, on November 20, 2009, declassified records from the former French Defense Attaché in Algiers revealed the seven monks were “victims of a mistake” by the Algerian army. [This disclosure apparently came too late to influence the final cut of “Gods and Men.” The film ends with the monks being abducted by a band of Islamic militants.] 

One other note: The iconography of robed Christian men has taken a beating over the past decade. It used to be that the sight of a dozen men in holy garb tending to prayers and monastic duties would give rise to feelings of awe and reverence. Today, to a degree that I’d never experienced before, I found the spectacle of grown men padding about in dresses alternately amusing and depressing. And now there is a new guessing game to deal with: Is Brother Amédée gay? Is Brother Célestin hetero? Have any of these celibates ever molested a child? Fortunately, it becomes easy to put these concerns aside once the story kicks in.