Saturday, May 21, 2011

Of Gods and Men, A Movie Review

Dear Parish Faithful,

Christ is Risen!

The following is something of a review of a current film entitled “Of Gods and Men.” I disclose the ending of the film in the review, so if you have any previous desire to see this film, be forewarned that this review contains a “spoiler.”

Earlier in the week, presvytera Deborah and I went to see a film that did not have “entertainment” as its primary purpose. The result was that one’s attention span and intelligence were treated respectfully by both the film’s form and content. The further result was to have seen a film that leaves a deep impression that makes the viewer feel and think in a serious manner far beyond the rolling of the last credits and the ride home from the theatre. Such a “cinematic experience” reminds one of the potential of films to engage the mind and heart and not simply our immediate sensory impressions. The film is entitled “Of Gods and Men,” and it is directed by Xavier Beauvois. This is a French production (yes, you have to read the subtitles) that is based on the tragic incident of eight Roman Catholic Trappist monks who were killed by Muslim extremists in Algeria in 1996. At the end of the film and the dramatic events recounted with a riveting intensity, we learn that the exact circumstances of the monks’ deaths, and the exact identity of the extremists remain mysteriously hidden to this day. Yet the fact of their death at the hands of an extremist Muslim group active in Algeria at the time is an established fact.

The story that unfolds is paced in such a manner that the daily – and unexciting - rhythm of the monks living in community is realistically recreated. As Trappist monks, these men lived a very austere life that was consciously reduced to the essentials of work, study and prayer. Simplicity, modeled on the Gospel, is the ideal. Scenes of the monks at prayer pervade the film and remind the outside world of the seriousness of the monastic vocation. However, this very quotidian life that concentrates on interior perfection is penetrated by the growing menace outside the gates of the monastery; and the threat of violence hangs over the monastery in a palpable manner as reports of other deadly terrorist attacks on civilians become known to the monks. This film is thus serious, tense and openly “religious” for its honesty in exploring deep questions of faith and trust in God among a humble group of men under intense pressure and even the awareness of the very real possibility of a violent death.

Another strength of the film is that it is free of a didactic element that “preaches” about the glory of a life of renunciation; and it is also free of the pietistic effect of transforming these Trappist monks into bold and brave martyrs. Yet, there are sections, especially toward the end of the film, in which the audience is confronted with some intense and impressive Christocentric reflections, such that the more secular viewers may find this intimidating, challenging, puzzling or the cause of some uneasiness at hearing the unapologetic meditations of men fully devoted to Christ. However, outside of the scenes of worship, accompanying by the plain chant of the monks, the film, in fact, concentrates on their inner struggle and resistance to the notion of a martyric death. The monks are shown repeatedly in dialogue with each other precisely about remaining in the monastery or returning to the safety and serenity of their French homeland. One monk passes through what is clearly a crisis of faith. He wonders aloud what conceivable purpose his death at the hands of militant terrorists would achieve. Why not choose to live, deepen one’s relationship with God and offer service to the world in an open-ended future? Without glorifying these monks, what emerges is their slow and steady commitment to their monastic vocations as they make their final decision in the end; and their additional commitment to their peaceful Muslim neighbors.

For though their monastery is the result of the earlier French colonization of Algeria, the monks have a good relationship with the poor neighbors in their rather remote rural location. One of the monks runs a health clinic for the local inhabitants which is flooded on a daily basis primarily with many Muslim women and their children. They depend upon his services and respect his humanitarian aid. The abbot of the monastery – wonderfully portrayed as an intellectual and somewhat austere figure – has mastered the Koran in the original Arabic and thus understands the religious sensibilities of the local population. He is shown in friendly dialogue with some of the leading men of the Muslim community. Obviously, there is no intention of proselytizing the Muslims on the part of these Roman Catholic monks. Peaceful co-habitation and mutual respect appears to be their main objective. (I recall in a documentary about Mt. Sinai, that the Orthodox monks of the ancient monastery of St. Katherine’s, also cultivated a friendly relationship with the native Bedouin tribesmen, even blessing their lambs and passing out Easter eggs on the day of Pascha). In today’s world those relationships both appear as idyllic and non-realistic.

The performance are uniformly excellent, without any pretense or artificiality. In fact, there is almost the feel of an intimate “docu-drama” to the film. But that may be just as much a result of the “artfulness” of the director. I am unaware of the location of the shooting of the film, but the cinematography of what is supposed to be rural Algeria with both its rolling hills and vineyards together with the rugged terrain of its barely accessible roads, is beautifully conceived and presented. The camera at times moves languidly over the landscape. Even if one knows the outcome ahead of time, the film remains tense from an early part until the end, gripping one’s attention in the presence of a human drama that embraces life and death and ultimate questions of how to discern the will of God in a situation filled with danger and tension.

If you are seeking some relief from the formulaic world of Hollywood film-making, I would highly recommend this film. “Of Gods and Men” will also perhaps make any Christian viewer (re)-think his or her own Christian faith and our own commitment to both a Christian worldview and lifestyle; and the depths of our commitment to Christ in a perilous and dangerous world.

Fr Steven

1 comment:

  1. Fr. Steven, I'm adding this film to my "must see" list.

    Regarding your comment: "the Orthodox monks of the ancient monastery of St. Katherine’s, also cultivated a friendly relationship with the native Bedouin tribesmen, even blessing their lambs and passing out Easter eggs on the day of Pascha"

    - here's a blogpost from last year about the "friendship" between the Muslims and the Christians of the 7th Century.

    Marty Davis


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