Political terror visits a French-run monastery in Algeria
Films centring on Christianity tend to be either boring portraits of plaster saints or harsh criticisms of a corrupt church that has lost its way. And then along comes Of God and Men by French director Xavier Beauvois.
Winner of the grand prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival (plus many other awards), this is an evocative depiction of monastic life, a subtle examination of what it means to dedicate yourself to God, and a quietly dramatic real-life account of events at a French-run monastery in Algeria in 1996 when Islamic extremists began a country-wide campaign of violence and terror.
Filmed in muted colours and presented with elegance and simplicity, Of Gods and Men begins with a series of quick scenes and images: monks dressed in snow-white robes chanting in the chapel; the sharing of food at a plain meal; monks studying religious texts at their desks and looking like 60-year-old schoolboys; a lineup of Arab villagers waiting for medical attention at the monastery’s clinic. The simple rhythms of this life draw us in, and we gradually come to know these eight Trappist monks as we watch them at prayer, then labouring in the field or making honey to sell in the local market. A scene of them attending an Arab celebration and a quick image of one of the monks reading a Koran translated into French is further evidence of how honestly and humbly they have blended into the lives of the Arabs who surround them.
Things start to get nasty when some nearby Croatian workers are massacred by the same Islamic extremists who have recently begun stabbing women for not wearing veils. The monks argue amongst themselves because their leader, Brother Christian, has unilaterally declined the offer of a protective military presence at the monastery. “I do not seek martyrdom,” asserts one monk. Another wonders whether they should return to France, or if that represents an abdication of their vows to serve God. The threat becomes tangible when gun-toting rebels burst into the monastery demanding medicine; days later, they return with an injured comrade and insist that his bullet wounds be treated.
Meanwhile, a government official tries to order them back to France. And with violence increasing, the soldiers have become suspicious of the monks, mistaking their compassionate acceptance of the humanity of the terrorists as sympathy for the cause. Finally, with tensions rising on all sides, the monks come to a unanimous decision about what their religious duty demands of them.
Of Gods paints a compelling portrait of a life in Christ, at the same time commenting on the friction between Christians and Muslims and the ramifications of France’s postcolonial guilt. The film is also effective at contrasting the timeless medieval rhythms of monastic life with the specifics of contemporary political terror. Thoughtful and eloquent, humble and moving, this is a must-see for fans of serious filmmaking. M