Of Gods and Men

It takes a lot to leave me speechless, but the French film Of Gods and Men, which tells the story of the 1996 assassination of seven Trappist monks by Islamic extremists in Algeria, did just that this weekend.  It may well be the best religious film I’ve ever seen.

Like the 2005 documentary Into Great Silence, the film allows the Trappists’ monastic lifestyle to unfold simply and quietly.  We see the monks at prayer, tending their garden, making honey, attending patients in their small clinic.  The film makes great use of silence and of the rugged Algerian countryside to allow us to feel the elemental beauty and humanity of the Trappists’ way of life.

We also feel the humanity of the Algerian villagers who live around the monastery.  As we watch the elderly physician Br. Luc tending a child’s wound, then rummaging for shoes for a mother and her daughter, or another of the monks helping a village matron address an envelope to her son in Paris, one has the sense that the relationship of monastery to village we’re seeing might as easily be unfolding in medieval Europe as in Muslim Algeria; it touches on timeless parts of being human—sickness, celebration, making a living, family, death, elders complaining that the world has gone mad, falling in love.

One of the film’s best scenes shows a conversation between Br. Luc, the monastery’s gentle, wry doctor, and a young woman from the village who asks him how one knows when one has fallen in love.  He describes feeling more fully alive when another person has entered the room, one’s heart beating faster, saying it can happen suddenly, unexpectedly; then he adds that it feels confusing, too, especially the first time.  When the girl asks him if he has ever fallen in love, he says, yes, several times, before he discovered an even deeper love, which he has followed for sixty years.

The real genius of Of Gods and Men is that it is a film about love, for that is what martyrdom means.  “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends,” Jesus says (John 15:13).  The rest of the film shows the Trappists, alone and as a community, finding the capacity for such love in themselves.  As Algeria’s civil war worsens and other foreigners are murdered, the monks are tempted to leave their monastery and the village that looks to them for strength and hope.

The initial reaction of the monks to the growing realization that they too will likely be killed is confusion.  Like the disciples, they are weak men:  they meet in chapter to discuss what to do; they criticize their prior; they are divided on whether to stay or leave.  The oldest of the monks, Br. Amédée suggests they have not prayed enough to make a decision, and the prior, Fr. Christian agrees.  In a sequence that cannot help but call to mind Christ’s temptation in the wilderness, we watch Fr. Christian walk the mountainous countryside alone.  One of the younger monks, who clearly does not want to die, experiences an agonizing Gethsemane as he prays alone in his cell at night, his tears and groans echoing through the walls as his brothers listen in pain and helplessness.

In the end, through heart-splitting prayer, through conversations between brothers—at times even through angry outbursts between brothers—each of the monks discovers his vocation.  As one of the monks who had initially voted to leave says at last, “If I leave here, I leave myself.”

Near the end of the film, a long wordless sequence shows the monks drinking wine as they listen to Swan Lake at a dinner much like the Last Supper.  The expressions on their faces change with the music:  from laughter and amusement to confusion, joy, sorrow, pain, and peace—all the emotions Br. Luc has described as part of being in love.

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.  The final words spoken in the film are taken from the last testament of Fr. Christian, written before his kidnapping, begging all who read them to refrain from imputing collective guilt on Muslims or Algerians, testifying to his love for the country where he died.  Every word echoes the plea of Jesus on the Cross, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).

Fr. Christian writes:

I have lived long enough to know that I, too, am an accomplice of the evil that seems to prevail in the world around, even that which might lash out blindly at me.  If the moment comes, I would hope to have the presence of mind, and the time, to ask for God’s pardon and for that of my fellowman, and, at the same time, to pardon in all sincerity him who would attack me.

His letter ends with words addressed to his yet unknown attacker:

And to you, too, my friend of the last moment, who will not know what you are doing.  Yes, for you, too, I wish this thank-you, this “A-Dieu,” whose image is in you also, that we may meet in heaven, like happy thieves, if it pleases God, our common Father.

May we all end up such happy thieves; may we all know such love.

AL, SJ

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14 Responses to Of Gods and Men

  1. William Atkinson says:

    Isn’t it ironic how European/American Christians hold such esteem over their own kind who go into Arab Muslim communities live and die for their european religions and political systems; But when Arab folks cry out for assistance to gain their freedom and beg in their own blood for assistance, the same European/American Christians look away, “Not my problem” Heck arn’t they just Islamic infidels dieing for their own problems. today as North African Islamic Arabs cry out to Europeans and Americans for help to throw off the chains of horrors, the same folks and countries who would send missionaries and religious emisaries just look away. Where are the cries of thousands of Euro/American Christians, the so called sanctified organisations, universities, and holy systems???? Another part of the global picture which probably makes the Christ Savior turn His head in discust at what he left behind……

    • Tennesee "Oxford" Hicks says:

      Well, ain’t you a volatile little cocktail of spit and vinegar, boy? Heck, I half thought you’d type that whole thing out with the caps lock on! Sure as I am the daggum sun will rise tomorrow no matter what I say at this point will please you much but let me try a spell to untwist you from yer britches boy. Now, I have no idea who you’ve been talking to, but I don’t know anyone who thinks of what’s going down in Libya and Egypt as “not their problem”, Hell, if it were me living down there under under Gaddafi duck I’d be mighty peeved m’self. Now I don’t play poker with race cards, way I see it this here’s a human issue, black white yeller, red, I dun’ care, and neither should you. I would tell you I’m right perturbed o’er the whole thing m’self because we have a president that would rather kowtow to UN consensus before helping them there folks from being bombed to kingdom come, but that’s a political problem, and a failure of leadership, not a problem emanatin’ from the tenets of Christianity or the phil-os-o-phy of western civ-il-i-zation.

      Now I dun’ know what got you on the wrong side of the bed this mornin’ but last I reckoned those cat’licks are all in north Africa right now. my buddy Jim at the gun club is one of them types that like the pope an’ all an’ I asked him and he sent me this here internet link.

      http://www.catholicnews.com/data/stories/cns/1100920.htm

      now I ain’t exactly geenyus or nothin’ but when they got people on the border trying to help out with the ref-u-gees I reckon that’s helping out with the situation, plus Jim tell me them cat’licks is already the largest aid agency there is already. last I checked they don’t ask for no ID card when disasters come they jus’ get to work, and I s’pose that’s how it oughtta be, amirite? so like I says before maybe i cant untwist you from that twig you got betwist yer britches but I figure you might sit a spell and ask a few questions ‘fore you start shootin’ that big ol’ mouth of yers. As the good book says, “A fool always loses his temper, But a wise man holds it back”. Think you best simmer down son ‘fore you wreck yerself up.

    • Qualis Rex says:

      William – no disrespect, but you clearly do not know what you are babeling about. The liberal establishment has most of the Western World in such a headlock that any help offered/given to Middle-Eastern countries is instantly branded as “colonialism”. In short, Europe is damned if they do, and damned if they don’t by the likes of you.

  2. JF says:

    Thank you for posting this article, Fr. lusvardi. I think it’s a great statement about the true nature of what it means when Jesus says: “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” True martyrdom comes not from anger or fear of this world but rather love for those who inhabit it, and the greater of God which envelopes both. I think it is sad that some would rather point to a nasty falsehood than appreciate the good that may be learned from a story, but I suppose those are the kind of folks that go looking for attention anyway. God bless you Fr. Keep up the good work!

  3. Tony, this is great. Phil Ganir and I saw “Of Gods and Men” last Friday – the first Friday of Lent. It was a moving experience for me, and great to share it with a brother in the Lord.

    Prayers hombre.

    PG, SJ

  4. Qualis Rex says:

    Salve Anton, very powerful and moving reflections here. These events took place just before the internet was getting into “full swing” as it were. I don’t think this could have happened in such shadowy circumstances today, as we could get a “blow-by-blow” twitter/facebook account of what was happening at ever step. Suffice it to say, the details of what really happened here are sketchy at best.

    What is commonly held wisdom on the subject is that the surrounding villagers (as well as possibly the police and secret service) knew something was going to happen. I always wonder what would happen if every Mohammedan villager who had ever been helped by these monks had camped out in the courtyard (doubtless there would have been several relatives of the gun-men among them).

  5. thereserita says:

    Fr. Christian’s letter has inspired since the day he was killed, which is when I first read it. It reminded me so much of Charles Foucould and the way he related to the muslims who ended up killing him.
    I wasn’t going to see this movie bc I thought it’d just upset me too much but, now that I’ve read your review, I’ll reconsider!

  6. Joe Simmons, SJ says:

    Dear Tony,

    After reading your insightful review of Of Gods and Men, I simply had to see it. So I went tonight, and I was moved to tears. A truly beautiful film about simple men who rose to the occasion and became courageous martyrs to Christ. AMDG!

    Then I came home to read Roger Ebert’s middling review of it. You can skip the first 2/3 of it (just a recap of the plot), and go to the last three paragraphs. Ebert offers his anemic assessment of their witness to faith: http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20110310/REVIEWS/110319994

  7. Rachel Lu says:

    Thanks for this review. Now I definitely want to see the film. I wonder whether it might make good viewing for my ethics class? I’m considering revamping it to involve less ethical theory and more discussion of not-explicitly-philosophical texts (and possibly films as well) that nonetheless raise challenging ethical questions. I’ve already had some success using martyrdom as an entry point for discussing the virtue of courage. I get into the subject with help from St. Alphonsus, whose writings on the Japanese martyrs are thought-provoking to say the least. But this might be another good way.

    Most of the students won’t really get it, of course. But part of my theory is that it’s sometimes easier to reach them if you avoid familiar “controversial” issues (like abortion) where they already feel like they know the score. In those discussions, they’ve already got their “armor” well-tempered. Instead of that, it can be better to come at them with more unexpected topics, which might possibly beguile them into making normative statements or even believing in truth.

    • Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

      I’m in favor of anything that beguiles people into believing in truth!

      Martyrdom certainly does challenge a utilitarian view of ethics… Ebert’s review that Joe posted above shows that he doesn’t get it either. Choosing to die like the monks did simply doesn’t make sense… unless Christianity is true.

      I agree on the approach of avoiding “controversial” issues to start out with; usually there are some more foundational issues that need to be unsettled first.

  8. JH says:

    Just saw this movie last night. I was really hit hard at the scene when the younger monk is discussing his fears with Fr. Christian, and doubts that he should be there at all. Fr. Christian’s response about love and vocation is great, especially when he reminds the young monk about the fundamental decision he’d made a long time ago, i.e. his decision to enter his religious order:

    “You have already given your life away.”

    Strong words. Thanks for posting this.

  9. Karen says:

    Beautiful review. The “Swan Lake” scene moved me so much.

  10. E Chacon says:

    Great film, great comment!
    Respectfull and polifacetic as real life is
    This is religion in deep, difficult, ambiguous, yet glorious fashion. Thanks

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