Friday, March 25, 2011

Of Gods and Men.


At the start of Lent, I went to see Of Gods and Men, Xavier Beauvois' film about the 1996 martyrdom of seven Cistercian monks from the Abbaye Notre-Dame de l'Atlas in Tibhirine, Algeria. In Europe, Of Gods and Men has already won critical accolades (including the Grand Prix at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival) and has achieved considerable box office success; now the film is slowly making its way to theaters across North America.

Though I don't think Of Gods and Men has had the sort of impact here that it has had on the other side of the Atlantic, the film has received fairly rapturous responses in Jesuit circles. Writing on America's blog In All Things, Father Jim Martin described Of Gods and Men as "the greatest film on faith I've ever seen"; over at Whosoever Desires, my fellow scholastic Tony Lusvardi echoed Father Martin's sentiment but also went a step further by declaring, "It’s hard to imagine a more moving or a more challenging depiction of religious life than Of Gods and Men, nor a better introduction to Christianity."

While I would readily affirm that Of Gods and Men is a great film, I cannot say that it's the greatest film on faith I've ever seen - that prize would probably go to Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light. I must also respectfully disagree with Tony's suggestion that it's difficult to imagine a better introduction to Christianity than Of Gods and Men. The question of what constitutes the best introduction to Christianity is, I suppose, a kind of theological Rorschach test: your answer inevitably reflects your own particular sense of what Christianity is about, or at least what you take to be its most characteristic or essential features. Of course, questions of context must also be considered - the best introduction for whom?

I don't think I would put forward any film on Christian themes (even Winter Light) as the ideal introduction to the faith. Christianity is as much about experiences as it is about ideas, so the best introduction to Christianity may come in the concrete experience of Christian community. If I wanted to give people with no concept of Christianity a sense of what the faith was about, I might tell them to spend the night of Pascha in a Russian parish, or perhaps to attend Forgiveness Vespers at the start of Lent. If geography did not matter, I might counsel a visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, for I know of no place that better reveals the essence of Christian faith, or more effectively rebuts bourgeois Western misapprehensions about the nature of Christianity, than this temple. If field trips are out of the question and some sort of text is essential, then I would probably counsel the inquirer to read the Paschal Sermon of St. John Chrysostom before anything else.


This is supposed to be a post about Of Gods and Men, so I should probably say something about the film itself. As I noted above, Of Gods and Men really is a great film, one that tells the story of the monks' martyrdom with sensitivity, subtlety, and, for the most part, exemplary understatement. Why do I write "for the most part"? Well, I agree with Macrina Walker and others who suggest that the 'Swan Lake scene' in the refectory was a bit much. The use of prior Christian de Chergé's testament in a concluding voice-over also struck me as a gratuitous touch in a film that otherwise avoids preaching overtly to its audience, though I must admit that the film's final scene - of the hostage monks being marched through the snow by their captors - is one of the most haunting I've ever seen captured on film.

Part of what makes Of Gods and Men so compelling is the way that it reveals the essential humanity of its subjects. Beauvois clearly wants the audience to see the monks of Tibhirine as heroic martyrs - as indeed they were, at least in my view - but he also shows us the difficulties that they faced as individuals and as a group grappling with the hard choice of whether to remain in Algeria in the certain knowledge that doing so could lead to their murder or to leave the country and save their lives at the loss of the sense of mission that had guided their community since its foundation. Roger Ebert, usually one of my favorite film critics, really missed the boat on this when he faulted the monks for possibly "committing the sin of pride" by choosing to stay and suggests that "Christian should have had the humility to lead his monks away from the path of self-sacrifice." The choice to remain was one that each monk made in freedom and as the fruit of careful discernment, ultimately motivated not by personal concerns but by a commitment to a higher calling.

Thanks to Beauvois' intelligent direction and fine performances by a distinguished cast, the monks of Tibhirine emerge as flawed but holy men, each with his own strengths and foibles. In Lambert Wilson's portrayal, Christian de Chergé comes across as austere and earnest, yet also gentle and compassionate in his care for his brethren, humble enough to change course when his initial decision to remain in Tibhirine without consulting the other monks comes under harsh criticism at a chapter meeting. Olivier Rabourdin is very good as Christophe, the youngest of the monks, who could reasonably have looked forward to many more years of life in the monastery yet must confront the terrifying fact that he and his community may be called to martyrdom. As the aged Brother Amédée, Jacques Herlin shows us the prototypical "living rule" found in many religious communities, including my own: a scene in which the outwardly frail yet apparently robust Amédée is prophetically told that "you'll survive us all" led me to chuckle in recognition, as I've heard the same comment made regarding similarly frail yet robust senior Jesuits.



All in all, I think that the best performance in Of Gods and Men is offered by Michael Lonsdale, a veteran of many religious roles, as the elderly physician Brother Luc. Despite chronic asthma and diminishing energy, Brother Luc spends five days a week tending to the medical needs of local villagers in a free clinic on the grounds of the monastery. Brother Luc also dispenses sage counsel to all who ask, including a young Algerian woman who seeks the old monk's advice on life and love. In a brief but beautiful scene - my favorite in the film, actually - Brother Luc speaks movingly to the young woman about the experience of falling in love with another person, making it clear that he has done so a number of times, before finally stating that the love he has chosen to follow for sixty years as a monk is the greatest he has ever known. Brother Luc's words in this scene are, I believe, the key to Of Gods and Men - they offer the best possible explanation of the monks' choice to stay at Tibhirine, and they also provide a simple yet eloquent statement of what religious life is about.

Though I can't say that Of Gods and Men is the best film I've ever seen on faith, I can say that it's the best new film on religious themes that I've seen in years. It also offers the best portrayal of religious life on film since Philip Gröning's Into Great Silence. (As an aside, I suspect that few who have seen and appreciated Into Great Silence will be able to watch Of Gods and Men without thinking of the earlier film - the visual style and narrative pacing of Beauvois' film is so suggestive of Gröning's exploration of Carthusian life that I can't help but wonder whether Of Gods and Men would have been made very differently if there had been no Into Great Silence.) If you haven't seen Of Gods and Men and the film makes it to your area, do yourself a favor and see it. AMDG.

23 Comments:

At 3/25/2011 2:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If I may inquire, is there a cute story that explains why a movie about monotheists uses "God" in the plural?

I ask because Arabic-speaking Catholics - and Christians - pray to "Allah" just like the Muslims who pray in Arabic.

j-a

 
At 3/25/2011 5:33 PM, Blogger Joe said...

I've heard people ask that question before, and all I can say in response is that the title Des hommes et des dieux is apparently an allusion to Psalm 82:6-7:

« Je l’ai dit : vous êtes des dieux, des fils du Très-Haut, vous tous ! Pourtant, vous mourrez comme des hommes, comme les princes, tous, vous tomberez ! »

As to the reverse ordering in the English version of the title, I can only guess that someone decided that "Of Gods and Men" sounded better in English than "Of Men and Gods."

 
At 3/25/2011 6:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I had a bit of time to spare, and suspect I found the answer.

In the New Testament, Jesus quotes those two Psalm verses in connection with monotheists threatening to spill blood and even kill because of their religion, over the same fundamental difference Muslims have with Christianity. I would be rather surprised if the movie makers were unaware of this; an oblique nod would seem to be the most prudent way of broaching the verses, Jn 10:29-38.

29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can take them out of the Father's hand. 30 The Father and I are one." 31 The Jews again picked up rocks to stone him. 32 Jesus answered them, "I have shown you many good works from my Father. For which of these are you trying to stone me?" 33 The Jews answered him, "We are not stoning you for a good work but for blasphemy. You, a man, are making yourself God." 34 Jesus answered them, "Is it not written in your law, 'I said, "You are gods"'? 35 If it calls them gods to whom the word of God came, and scripture cannot be set aside, 36 can you say that the one whom the Father has consecrated and sent into the world blasphemes because I said, 'I am the Son of God'? 37 If I do not perform my Father's works, do not believe me; 38 but if I perform them, even if you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may realize (and understand) that the Father is in me and I am in the Father."

 
At 3/25/2011 6:38 PM, Blogger Laura Brown said...

I was wondering if you would write about this film. I'm hoping to see it.

 
At 3/25/2011 10:43 PM, Blogger Joe said...

Anon,

That could be part of the reasoning behind the title as well. I honestly haven't thought much about it, but I'm sure that Xavier Beauvois has addressed the issue somewhere.

 
At 3/25/2011 11:17 PM, Blogger Joe said...

Laura,

Is the film still showing in the UK? I gathered from reviews in the Guardian and elsewhere that it had, but I don't know whether it has been as much of a popular success there as it has been in France - somehow I doubt it, but I could be wrong.

 
At 3/25/2011 11:53 PM, Blogger Barbara said...

I saw this remarkable film in Montreal a few weeks ago. I suspect it will be around for a while, since it is a French film.

I think film might give an introduction to Christianity to those whose exposure to ideas comes through the media, the arts. They preach with their lives and give their lives for their brothers and sisters. They are a loving and thoughtful community who celebrates Eucharist with one another in peace and joy. That's a good primer on Christianity -- for me, at least.

 
At 3/25/2011 11:59 PM, Blogger Barbara said...

By the way, my best guess why they pluralize "god" is that it is a reflection of how secular society views religion -- one "god" vs another. One could add the "god" of nationalism as well. This is a secular humanist's exploration of the mindset behind Christian martyrdom -- done with profound respect, I might add. I believe that is why the French chose to place the "hommes" before the "dieux."

 
At 3/26/2011 6:44 PM, Blogger Joe said...

Barbara,

Thank you for your comments - I think you're right about the title, particularly on the more inclusive use of "gods" (which makes me think of the Walli, the local Algerian official in the film, a secular nationalist who shows scorn for both Islamic fundamentalism and the negative legacy of French colonialism).

As an interesting side note, some Jesuits I've spoken with were critical of the presentation of religious life in the film as too idealistic - the critique (which I think I agree with, at least in part) is that the film doesn't show enough of the conflicts and tensions present in any religious community. I'll admit that the film does show a bit of each, but it does so in a muted way. I thought a bit about this when writing my original post, but I decided not to talk about it because I didn't want to open a much larger can of worms.

 
At 3/26/2011 10:19 PM, Blogger Barbara said...

From my own witness, I know monastic communities have stresses and conflicts. Perhaps when facing something like imminent martyrdom, those stresses seem less of a problem and their better angels take charge. It is true that monks in the Benedictine tradition do place an emphasis on communal consultation.

The film is entering its fifth week in Montreal, showing at four theatres, I believe.

 
At 3/27/2011 4:53 PM, Blogger Joe said...

Barbara,

Thank you for the follow-up - I'm glad to hear that the film seems to be enjoying some success in Montreal; I know a number of people (including the Jesuit with whom I went to see the film a few weeks ago) who have gone to see Of Gods and Men multiple times - I don't plan to do that, but I will probably purchase the DVD eventually.

 
At 3/29/2011 6:40 AM, Blogger dpr1982 said...

Hi Joe, Just some questions, not apropos of this film, but of Bergman. Not important, if you are busy. I was searching the US Council of Catholic Bishops movie review website (maybe not your first choice but I use it rather frequently) and was curious if you had any strong feelings or particular reflections on the films they mention. First, Sunday's Children? Second, two which made the Vatican's top 100 list (from 1995(!)): Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries? Lastly, The Best Intentions and Face to Face? As a general comment, I was really surprised to learn that Bergman kept filming until 4 years before his death (2007). As a final note, Wikipedia states that the Swedish title of Wild Strawberries literally translates to "wild strawberry patch," a metaphor in Swedish that corresponds roughly to our "diamond in the rough" or "hidden gem." The English title seems to me to be somewhat deficient. Just curious if you had any particular reactions you wanted to share relating to the above. Thanks for blogging about Gods and Men as I may not have learned about it otherwise.

 
At 3/29/2011 10:23 AM, Blogger Salvatore said...

Just saw the film last night--I waited to read your review until today. What a tremendous film... I wish I could say the same about "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall All His Past Lives" which beat out "Of Gods + Men" to win the Palme d'Or.

I agree with your review. I'm thinking of how beautiful this film dealt with the concept of silence or lack thereof--it was really a moving treatment of what makes the two faith traditions so different, but at the same time, so often equally reverent.

And finally I think I drew some obvious comparisons to Shusaku Endo's 'Silence' which I only bring up because you are a Jesuit, and because I brought it up in your class.

☮ PEACE ☮

 
At 3/29/2011 10:53 AM, Blogger Joe said...

David,

I'd be curious to know why you frequent the USCCB film review site... I don't think I've looked at it in about a decade, and I wouldn't have been surprised if someone had told me it had been discontinued.

Wild Strawberries is a great film. I'm sure that The Seventh Seal is a great film also, but I've yet to be able to get through it - for some reason, I've fallen asleep or gotten bored whenever I've tried to watch it, which is an atypical experience for me as far as Bergman is concerned.

 
At 3/29/2011 10:54 AM, Blogger Joe said...

Sal,

You should write your own review focused on the 'silence' theme - I'd be interested in reading more of your thoughts on the film.

 
At 3/30/2011 6:38 AM, Blogger dpr1982 said...

Joe,

Thanks for your response. To be succinct, I frequent the USCCB movie review site (whose reviews are, I believe written by Catholic News Service, and not any actual organ of the bishops' conference) because I can't find any other Catholic (or more generally Christian) encyclopedia of movie reviews.

I imagine the semester is drawing gradually to a close--good luck getting ready for exam writing, etc. ("writing" in the American not Commonwealth sense obviously).

 
At 3/30/2011 11:07 AM, Blogger Joe said...

David,

Thanks for the follow-up... the reason I stopped bothering with the USCCB movie reviews was that I never found them to be really seriously 'Catholic,' (or 'catholic,' for that matter) - instead of providing a thoughtful theological analysis of film and culture, they tended to focus on sex and language in a priggish and unduly censorious way.

 
At 4/05/2011 3:32 PM, OpenID avowofconversation said...

Thanks for this Joe. I've been meaning to comment since first reading it.

I heard today that the film is still showing here and I've been debating whether to go and see it again.

I was far too subjectively and emotionally involved in watching it to be able to say anything intelligent, and some things I would hesitate to say in public.

I actually found the use Brother Christian's testament to be rather a let-down. The fact is that that did have a major and quite dramatic impact, so perhaps I was expecting that to come across in the film - or perhaps it did and I was just too shattered by then to appreciate it.

I can appreciate the criticism of it being a rather idealised presentation of community life, and I am normally rather horrified by such things. But from everything I know about the community it wasn't - that their community life was an integral part of the grace of their martyrdom. Which is not to say that they were perfect or didn't have to go through a significant struggle to attain some degree of unity. The film makes that clear although in a necessarily limited way.

Macrina

 
At 4/05/2011 5:07 PM, Blogger Joe said...

Macrina,

Thank you for your comments - I was wondering whether you would reply to my review at some point; the reference you gave to Brother Jean-Pierre's interview in Le Figaro was very helpful to me, and I'd like the opportunity to learn more about the monks' lives. Over the past few years, I've come across various books in French and English by or about the monks of Tibhirine and have regularly told myself I should read more about them, but I regret to say that I haven't done so yet.

Though our experiences of religious life have been different, we do share reference points which the average viewer of Of Gods and Men would not possess. How would a person who had never seen the inside of a monastery or religious house - or, more to the point, who had never met a monastic - react to a film like Of Gods and Men?

My concern with the above question underlies my reaction against the idea that the film should be taken as a good introduction to Christianity. It's easy for me to imagine that someone with no experiential or intellectual sense of what Christianity is about could watch the film and come away with a positive view of religious faith and still be unsure of - or have the wrong idea of - what Christianity is about.

The friend with whom I saw Of Gods and Men in early March opined that the film struck him as a thoughtful agnostic's attempt to understand Christian martyrdom (Xavier Beauvois is a self-described agnostic). In a more recent conversation with another friend who also saw the film, I took the view that Of Gods and Men seemed to be more essentially concerned with the power of conviction - on reflection, it strikes me that an agnostic or atheist could embrace the film as a positive statement about conviction in general without having to endorse the specifically Christian convictions that motivated the monks. In a sense, Beauvois' endorsement of the Atlas Martyrs could be a bit like the endorsement that Robert Bolt (another nonbeliever) gave to Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons. For Bolt, what mattered about More wasn't that he gave his life for his Christian faith but that he gave his life for the ideal of conscience.

These thoughts wander far from your comment, Macrina, but at the very least I hope they show that I haven't stopped thinking about Of Gods and Men since I saw it! Perhaps I should also make an effort to see it again.

 
At 4/08/2011 9:40 PM, Blogger Michelle said...

I'm off to see this tomorrow (in Philly!) and was wondering about how having seen Into Great Silence might shape the experience. I'm teaching a course next fall on contemplative traditions and Western monasticism (the chemistry department is loaning me out...) and I'm crossing my fingers we will be able to get this movie on campus to see alongside Into Great Silence.

I enjoyed both review and lively discussion...

Michelle

 
At 4/09/2011 11:07 AM, Blogger Joe said...

Thanks, Michelle. I look forward to reading your review of the film. Prayers and best wishes also for the new course - I'm sure it will be great!

 
At 1/25/2013 10:40 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Des Homme et Des Dieux. I watched it to practice my French aural skills. Coming from France and from a secular film industry, the title fits in.The English equivalent of 'Of men and their gods' would have sufficed. i liked the old priest who hid under the bed when the thugs broke in...'god for us all and everyone one on their own' :)

 
At 11/12/2015 12:05 AM, Blogger raveneagle said...

For me the monks might have looked at the injustice of French occupation and imperialism and discovered that they could leave Algeria as a statement of kind of "Give it back to the Indians. We don't belong here, no matter how noble of life has been even if we are the kind and charitable occupiers."

 

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