Saturday, March 26, 2011

Of Gods and Men

Fifteen years ago today, seven French Trappist monks were abducted from their monastery, Notre-Dame de l'Atlas, in Tibhirine, Algeria. An Islamist group, the GIA (Groupe Islamique Armé), claimed responsibility for the kidnappings and demanded that several GIA members be released from prison in exchange for the monk's release.

Two months later the monks' heads were found on a roadside; their decapitated bodies have never been found. The circumstances of their deaths remain unclear. While the GIA had earlier claimed that the monks had been executed, there is a troubling alternate theory that the monks were killed by gunfire from Algerian army helicopters during a botched raid and that their bodies were then decapitated to implicate the GIA in a shameful cover-up.

Xavier Beauvois's film Des hommes et des dieux (Of Gods and Men), which won the Grand Prix at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival and which I finally had the chance to see (after much anticipation!) this week, focuses not on the monks' deaths but on their lives. (See the American trailer here and the slightly different European trailer here.) I think it ranks with Roland Joffé's The Mission (1986), John Dulgan's Romero (1989), and Franco Zeffirelli's miniseries Jesus of Nazareth (1977) as one of the most beautiful faith-infused films ever made.

Its pace is slow, deliberate - like the Gregorian chant that marks the rhythm of the monks lives - and this is one of the film's virtues. No high-speed chases here, no breathy love scenes - how refreshing! The beauty and dignity of a few individuals' humble lives instead calls viewers to slow down, to pay attention, to focus, to notice, to cherish the ordinary and discover in it the extraordinary. One cannot appreciate this film without entering into the monastic spirit of contemplation portrayed in it.

Between scenes in which the monks go to chapel to sing the liturgical hours - vespers, compline, lauds, terce - we catch glimpses of their daily lives, lives imbued with a sense of the sacred even during the most humble tasks. One brother mops the floor and tends the garden; another, a physician by training, sees villagers in the monastery clinic; the abbott, Christian, played by Lambert Wilson (known in the U.S. for his role as The Merovingean in The Matrix), studies the Koran, visits with villagers, and tries to do right by his community. The peaceable and mutually supportive nature of the monks' relationship with the Muslim villagers is made clear in several scenes.

There are touching moments scattered throughout the film like small wildflowers in an open field. A young girl from the village and the old doctor monk have a frank conversation about being in love, dispelling the stereotype of the inexperienced or repressed celibate who knows little of such matters. The abbott opens the door to the cell of a monk who has fallen asleep snoring over his book and folds the sleeping monk's glasses for him. The monks gather with each other after a stressful moment while the doctor sutures one of them and the oldest gently rubs the youngest on the shoulders, trying to de-stress him in a paternal gesture of protectiveness.

The monks are saintly but imperfect. While washing some dishes one of them says to the other, "F- you!" after taking a humorously-uttered statement the wrong way. The brothers sometimes overhear each other's prayers in their cells, and some of their prayers are wracked with doubt and fear. The abbott makes an executive decision without input from the others, and they call him on it. Later the community comes together on more than one occasion to discuss whether they should leave Algeria, and the villagers they have come to love, in light of the rising violence and danger in the region. There are no easy answers for them, and each day brings tests of faith, small and large, with which to wrestle. In one of the most powerful moments in the film, the abbott, Christian, finds himself face to face with terrorists who have invaded the monastery. His exemplary courage, calm, and respectfulness under pressure were inspiring beyond words.

Like a meditative chant that lingers in the mind and keeps coming back hours and days later, Of Gods and Men is a film that permeates and stays with you. It's like that gentle whisper in which the prophet Elijah finds the presence of God outside the cave in Mt. Horeb. The Divine is not in the clamor of the tempestuous, earth-shattering wind, or in the earthquake, or in the fire, but rather in the stillness, in the quiet voice found in peace and silence.

Some reviews:
NPR (1) and NPR (2)

Click here to read Christan de Chergé's testament, written over a year before his death.

Click here for an interview with Henri Quinson, who left Wall Street to enter a Trappist monastery in rural France and who was the monastic advisor for Of Gods and Men.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A group of us were discussing this movie at dinner last night - I have been hoping to see it, and now it's definitely on my must-see list.