[28 July 2011]
Of Gods and Men, the 2010 winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes, dramatizes a real-life, exemplary case of Christian faith, and models a peaceful Christian-Muslim community. In so doing it provides a welcome counter to the hypocritical expressions of Christian piety and anti-Islamic polemics that often pass for religious discussion in Western media.
The French Trappist monks of the monastery of Notre-Dame de L’Atlas, located in the hills above a village in the Tibhirine region of Algeria, have lived in peace with their Muslim neighbors for generations, providing medical aid to the community and forming friendships with the locals. When violence breaks out in the area, and insurgents begin targeting foreigners, the brothers are pressured to return to France, even as the villagers exhort them to stay. After much thought and discussion, they all agree to remain. Conditions continue to deteriorate and a reckoning between the monks and insurgents appears inevitable. It comes, but that’s not the focus of the film, which instead shows us how the waiting tests the brothers’ faith.
The first quarter of the film establishes the monks in their monastic routine, and as members of the local community. They chant, sing, and pray together; tend the monastery garden; and host a clinic, run by brother Luc (Michael Lonsdale), a physician. The monks consult with local leaders, sell honey at market, and attend the coming-of-age celebration of a village boy.
Violence soon interrupts the idyll. Village elders lament the depredations of insurgents who have begun attacking women for not wearing veils, and a group of Croatian workers are murdered. When armed men come to the monastery requesting medical help, the monks are forced to decide how to respond to the growing threat.
Having already presented a welcoming Muslim community, into which the brothers have clearly long been integrated, and introduced Muslim leaders who decry extremism carried out in the name of Islam, the film delineates the insurgents as a threat not just to the monks, but to village leaders and inhabitants, as well.
Portraits of a bitter government official who blames the French for the country’s current troubles, and of a military officer disgusted both by the monks’ refusal of military protection and also by brother Christian’s (Lambert Wilson) insistence on praying over the dead body of an insurgent add to the film’s nuanced presentation of the complicated political and religious landscape of ‘90s Algeria. It’s even possible to find in Of Gods and Men a hint of critique of the monks’ intransigence as a benign example of sectarianism that in an extreme, militant form fuels the Islamic fundamentalists’ brutality.
In an interview on the Blu-ray disc, John Kiser, author of The Monks of Tibhirine: Faith, Love, and Terror in Algeria, calls the events dramatized in Of Gods and Men “a love story wrapped in a horror story”. It’s also an apt description of the film, which respectfully renders the fraternal affection the brothers express for one another, from the satisfaction they derive from praying and working together, to more intimate interactions: Christian comforting Christophe (Olivier Rabourdin), whom anxiety has caused to question his faith, or Célestin (Philippe Laudenbach) reading the newspaper to an exhausted Luc after the aging doctor has had an asthma attack.
Finally, though, the brothers struggle alone with their beliefs. In a powerful scene that plays as a kind of last supper, the monks share wine and listen to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. With the musical climax to the ballet the only sound in this wordless scene, the camera moves around the room, capturing each man in ever tighter close-ups—registering joy, resignation, and empathy—and ending with a shot of Christian’s eyes.
The extreme close-ups complement earlier shots in which the rugged North African landscape dwarfs the men, recalling their vows of humility. The inward turn showcased in the climactic scene is not the manifestation of ego, but a glimpse of the men’s complex internal lives, and of their struggles with faith and duty. While the rhythms of their days are as old as the sixth-century Rule of St. Benedict, their predicament is quintessentially modern: waiting for the end.
The cast is superb. Lambert Wilson as Christian radiates strength and humility as well as a refined empathy for others and concomitant obliviousness to his own self-interest. As Luc, Michael Lonsdale matches a boundless generosity with a world-weary fearlessness in adversity derived from a faith that remains unshaken even as his body has begun to fail.
Of Gods and Men comes as a combo pack with both Blu-ray and DVD discs. Only the Blu-ray contains extras: the interview with Kiser, who puts the events of the story in historical and political context, plus a featurette, “The Sacred Tibhirine: Further Investigation”, which takes viewers to the abandoned monastery and includes interviews with relatives of several of the monks. (Note: I could not get English subtitles to display for the French-language featurette.)