Based on a true story, this film tells the story of a small group of French monks in an Algerian monastery in 1995, caught between their order, the corrupt Algerian government, and an Islamic terrorist group. The beginning shows the fairly symbiotic relationship between the monks and the village they serve, though it’s interesting that they seem to have little interest in converting any of the Muslims around them (perhaps it’s worth noting there is a difference between a monastery and a mission), but instead serve among them, providing medical care, advice and a listening ear, prayer when desired, and above all a stable presence in the region.
The Islamist group threatens the delicate balance, with growing violence and threats making the monks consider leaving for a safer monastery or returning to France. This struggle is played out in a series of community meetings as the seven or eight of them talk out the various options, and what they believe God would have them do, and also more subtly through the frequent prayer and chanting they do, which constitutes almost the entirety of the film’s soundtrack.
I really loved this aspect of the film, especially since I’ve been deep diving into medieval and Renaissance music lately, so I have a newfound appreciation for chanting and the Latin mass (though they sometimes sing in French). Mostly they do chant plainsong, though there are a few times when more harmonies enter – notably a particularly powerful scene where a hostilities between the government and terrorists are reaching a boiling point, and a helicopter comes and just hovers threateningly right outside the monastery. The monks had been praying silently, but at this threat, they simultaneously begin singing and stand together, making a wall of their bodies and voices to symbolically ward off the enemy. The use of music is great, with the hymns they chant being suited to the particular spiritual need they have at that moment. It made me think maybe we should be using music more intentionally in our spiritual warfare. (The joyous use of Swan Lake in a late scene is transcendent as well.)
I appreciated the slow contemplativeness of the film, though I admit I had to put in a second viewing of certain sections because it can be quite, how shall I say, relaxing to watch and listen to monks go about their daily tasks. I also found myself wishing for a bit more context to the terrorist activity – the monks are French, and not a little of the conflicts in Algeria stem from French colonization, and the film doesn’t explore that at all. I also would’ve maybe appreciated a bit more knowledge of the monk’s theological perspectives – they seem quite syncretistic at times with the Muslim community around them (see Brother Christian’s long quote below, which is at the end of the film), but it can be a little hard to see the line between serving a community unconditionally and accepting their beliefs uncritically.
Stats and stuff…
directed by Xavier Beauvois; written by Xavier Beauvois & Etienne Comar
starring Lambert Wilson, Michael Lonsdale, Olivier Rabourdin
I’m ranking all my Challenge films on Flickchart (as I do all the films I see), a movie-ranking website that asks you to choose your favorite between two movies until it builds a ranked list of your favorites. Just for fun, I will average out the rankings and keep a running tally of whose recommendations rank the highest. When you add a film to Flickchart, it pits it against films already on your chart to see where it should fall. Here’s how Of Gods and Men entered my chart:
Of Gods and Men beats Berlin: Symphony of a Great City
Of Gods and Men loses to Premium Rush
Of Gods and Men beats Russian Ark
Of Gods and Men beats Carrie (1976)
Of Gods and Men beats Panic Room
Of Gods and Men loses to Carousel
Of Gods and Men loses to District B-13
Of Gods and Men beats Spider-Man
Of Gods and Men loses to Topper Takes a Trip
Of Gods and Men loses to Caged
Of Gods and Men loses to Spirited Away
Of Gods and Men beats The Three Robbers
Final ranking #990 out of 3602 films ranked (73%)
It is now my #1 Xavier Beauvois film, my #2 Michael Lonsdale film, my #9 Religious Drama, and my #34 film of 2010.
Of Gods and Men was recommended by Malea Selby, a friend from my church. Averaging together this #990 ranking with my #616 ranking of her other film, The Keys of the Kingdom, gives Malea an average ranking of 803.
A few quotes…
Opening on-screen text: I said, “You are gods, sons of the Most High, but you shall die like men and fall like princes.” – Psalm 82:6-7
Brother Christian: We were called to live here. In this country, with these people who are also afraid.
Brother Christian: [quoting the Koran] “Those who are closest to the Believers are the ones who say ‘We are Christians.’”
Brother Christophe (I think): I became a monk to live, not to sit back and have my throat cut.
Brother Christian: The good shepherd doesn’t abandon his sheep to the wolves.
Brother Christian: We are martyrs out of love, out of fidelity. If death overtake us, despite ourselves, because up to the end, up to the end we’ll try to avoid it. Our mission here is to be brothers to all. Remember that love is eternal hope. Love endures everything.
Brother Christian: The incarnation, for us, is to allow the filial reality of Jesus to embody itself in our humanity.
Brother Christian: [Voice-over] Should it ever befall me, and it could happen today, to be a victim of the terrorism swallowing up all foreigners here, I would like my community, my church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to this country. That the Unique Master of all life was no stranger to this brutal departure. And that my death is the same as so many other violent ones, consigned to the apathy of oblivion. I’ve lived enough to know, I am complicit in the evil that, alas, prevails over the world and the evil that will smite me blindly. I could never desire such a death. I could never feel gladdened that these people I love be accused randomly of my murder. I know the contempt felt for people here, indiscriminately. And I know how Islam is distorted by certain Islamism. This country, and Islam, for me are something different. They’re a body and a soul. My death, of course, will quickly vindicate those who call me naïve or idealistic, but they must know that I will be freed of a burning curiosity and, God willing, will immerse my gaze in the Father’s and contemplate with him his children of Islam as he sees them. This thank you which encompasses my entire life includes you, of course, friends of yesterday and today, and you too, friend of the last minute, who knew not what you were doing. Yes, to you as well I address this thank you and this farewell which you envisaged. May we meet again, happy thieves in Paradise, if it pleases God the Father of us both. Amen. Insha’Allah.
A few more screenshots…