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.