“Of Gods and Men” is the greatest film on faith I’ve ever seen.  It surpasses even some of my longtime favorite movies on the spiritual life, like “Romero,” “Diary of a Country Priest,” “A Man for All Seasons,” "The Mission" and “The Song of Bernadette.”  Perhaps only Franco Zeffirelli’s multi-part series “Jesus of Nazareth” has moved me more. 

By now, you probably know that the French-language movie, lauded in all corners (except, inexplicably, by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—the film was omitted from being nominated for Best Foreign Language Film), is about the Trappist monks of Our Lady of Atlas Monastery in Algeria, who were assassinated by Algerian extremists in 1996.  Their story, which was in danger of being forgotten even in many corners of the Catholic world, is told in John Kiser’s essential book, The Monks of Tibhirine.

What may make the film so profound? 

First of all, it is a realistic portrayal of the life of faith.  The monks are not perfect; no saint, or martyr, is.  Holiness always makes its home in humanity.  Occasionally the monks are impatient, tetchy, or short with one another.  (“He’s tired,” says an older monk after a younger one has spoken to him sharply while cleaning up after a meal.)  One of them thinks wistfully of the life that he might have had "on the outside."  Moreover, the group struggles mightily with the idea that they might be "called" to be martyrs, indeed resisting it until almost the last minute.  As anyone would.  The life of the believer often involves uncertainty, doubt and confusion.  Two of them are seen, quite distinctly, as “avoiding” their fate.  But all try to grapple with what God seems to be asking of them, strange and frightening as it may seem to them. 

Second, the movie does not stint—at all—on the religious underpinnings of their actions and choices.  Too often in contemporary cinema, producers or directors indicate by their own choices that audiences will not understand people who talk about God in a serious way. And so we see (and hear) the monks chanting their prayers, celebrating Mass, preparing for Christmas.  In this way the movie was reminiscent of another recent film on the monastic life, the documentary "Into Great Silence."  We hear the words of their prayers, too; and we are privy to their conversations with one another about God, and often with God.  God is real to them; and God’s effect on their lives is made real to the viewer.

We see, too, the real-life effects of their Christian faith: particularly in the love they show (and receive) from the villagers who live near the monastery.  The Trappists are, moreover, charitable and loving not only to friends (to one another; to their longtime friends in the village); but to those who oppose them (to both the terrorists who threaten their lives and the army officers who have nothing but contempt for their desire to stay.)  The life of contemplation and action are inseparable; the true effects of their belief are made manifest.

Third, the director Xavier Beauvois underplays many scenes, like a beautifully pastoral image of the abbot walking silently through a flock of sheep.  Another director might have wanted to demonstrate more explicitly (through music, a caption or a voice-over) the idea of the Good Shepherd who does not leave his flock, which the monks discuss at one point during their deliberations on whether or not to "stay." The use of music from “Swan Lake,” which Anthony Lane in the New Yorker felt was used more effectively than even in “Black Swan,” is also subtle.  At a meal, a kind of Last Supper before their martyrdom, the community listens not to the traditional “reading at table” (where a monk reads from a religious text to the silent diners), but to Tchaikovsky’s great music.  They drink good wine, as the camera pans over their now confused, now calm, now sorrowful, now joyful faces. 

The movie, as the modernist poets liked to say, shows rather than tells.

Fourth, the actors' performances are nearly perfect.  Based on the monks (and Trappists) I know, these characters felt as close to real monks as I’ve ever seen on screen, particularly the kind-hearted Brother Luc, played by Michael Lonsdale; and the intellectually-minded abbot, Christian, played by Lambert Wilson (who can be heard here on NPR’s “Fresh Air” speaking about his role.)

Fifth, and perhaps most importantly, the film treats the idea of martyrdom intelligently.  Watching “Of Gods and Men,” I started to realize, slowly at first then more strongly, that more people might begin to understand the strange idea of martyrdom.  For it is an idea that even believers find hard to comprehend.

Besides this unique film, perhaps only “A Man for All Seasons” and “Romero” can help people understand this difficult and complex idea, which today is often seen as naïve, bizarre or simply masochistic.  But martyrdom is always more about fidelity to one’s mission than it is about an outright courting of danger.  None of the Trappist monks do this; they all want to live.  Until they cannot.

In addition to being the final result of fidelity to God in a dangerous situation, or a faithfulness to those with whom one ministers, martyrdom may also involve a negation, a via negativa.  That is, martyrdom is just as often about finding oneself not being able to do something.  St. Thomas More could not say “yes” to the king’s actions in Renaissance England; Archbishop Oscar Romero, the American churchwomen and Jesuit priests could not leave the poor with whom they worked in El Salvador in the 1980s; the Trappist monks in Algeria could not desert a poor and oppressed village that had come to depend upon them. 

But in this “no” comes a “yes.”  A “yes” to solidarity with the oppressed; a “yes” to God; a “yes,” paradoxically, to life. 

Comments

Toni Urquhart | 3/2/2011 - 2:01pm
The first review of this film I read in the February 28th issue of The New Yorker. I was both surprised by and pleased as pie to find Anthony Lane’s positive notice of this Catholic-themed film that was ignored (inexplicably so, indeed) by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. I was also pleased to read your review, Fr Jim, as it spoke to my heart. The presence of both discussions of the film as art speak to a sense of an appreciative relevance of keeping alive this valuable story for the sake of continuing a conversation between all persons seeking to exercise the art of consensual peace. To avoid or deny what is tragic is to reduce from our potential vision of peace the lessons of a most excellent teacher.
 
The story of these monks of Our Lady of Atlas raises for us the fundamental question of how we are to live with our neighbor, with those who are different from ourselves, yet with whom we commune as one at our core. A 12th century Cistercian abbot, Gilbert of Hoyland, once said, “There is no dwelling together in unity except in love.” I look forward to the cinematic story of these Trappist monks, guided as they were by their experience of God through their Cistercian spirituality, seeking unity with their Algerian brothers and sisters through love. I hope it might bring brighter understanding to a question Dom Christian de Chergé raised in his testament composed three years before his murder: “How could I rejoice if the people I love were indiscriminately accused of my murder.” Where did the hope of peace break down and its opposite take precedence between this monk and his “last minute friend”?  The answer has something to say to the seeker of peace inside each one of us.
 
Dom Christian’s testament can be found at this URL:
  http://www.monasticdialog.com/a.php?id=497
Helen Mc Devitt-Smith | 3/1/2011 - 11:17am
To Brett Joyce
"Hollywood has snubbed this movie (not at all surprising, since it shows the Catholic faith in a positive light)... ."
I too wondered why it was not nominated for an Academy Award.  So, I am interested in the source of your comment that it represents anti-Catholic bias.  (or is it just your opinion.) 
 

Austen Ivereigh | 2/28/2011 - 6:28am
Thank you, Fr Jim, for that brilliant summary of what makes OGAM such a great movie. I saw it in a central London cinema some weeks ago and have never felt such stillness in an audience; it was like being on retreat. While I wouldn't add one word to your five reasons above, I think there's a way in which cinematically it's pure genius: and that is to use the extremely undramatic - peace-filled, routine - daily lives of elderly monks as the viewpoint for the story, and to allow the audience to take on that viewpoint. What the monks actually do in the film is gently human, loving, unspectacular, undramatic; no one sits more lightly, less intrusively, to the world than contemplative monks. The normal rules of cinema dictate that these lives cannot be the stuff of movies, and what goes on outside is.

Yet the film dares to use the monks' normality to show how their inexistence is intolerable to the world, which brings more and more pressure to bear on it. Normally we see monasteries from the point of view of the world - -secluded, "apart" places, where people do things differently. In OGAM, however, that point of view is reversed. The world seems a very fragile, very violent, very unstable place - very lovable but on the verge of chaos. The monks' space, on the other hand, seems the more natural, secure and normal.

Whenever I've stayed in monasteries for long periods I've come away with that inverted view of the world, seeing humanity with fresh eyes - and far more like, I imagine, God sees the world.  To achieve that in a couple of hours of movietime is genius.
Brian Thompson | 2/27/2011 - 10:41pm
This is, indeed, a superb film, very moving, beautiful cinematography, outstanding acting. Do not miss it if it come anywhere within reach. 

It has come to light fairly recently that the monks were probably not killed by Islamic extremists as reported at the time, but by the Algerian army, with the knowledge of the French. This is being investigated.
Anonymous | 2/27/2011 - 8:28pm
Thanks for the great review, Fr. Martin.  I cannot wait to see this movie (it will be in my neck of the woods in two months).  Until then, I am recommending it to all of my family and will be posting about it on facebook with a link to your review.

Hollywood has snubbed this movie (not at all surprising, since it shows the Catholic faith in a positive light), so we need to spread the word through our individual networks ;)
Joan Bartolomei | 2/28/2011 - 9:31pm
Fr. Jim, Thank you for this great review.  I cannot wait to see this movie.  I often despair at how negatively our faith is protrayed in cinema and TV.  Catholics, all too often, are portrayed as simplistic, naive, unthinking and rigid.  I love your line, ''Holiness always makes its home in humanity.''  Saints are profoundly human, flawed and broken, yet filled with faith, hope, and charity.  They cling to life on this side of heaven, yet not to the point where they will abandon Gospel values.  Jesus, fully human, begged His Father to let the cup pass from him, but Jesus did not compromise his mission in order to save his life.  Neither did these monks.