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.