Ages ago, when I still lived in California and attended Pasadena Mennonite Church, I began “The Religious Film Society.” Based on an idea from a friend, the purpose was to watch films with religious themes and talk about it after watching the film. I had great fun organizing the group and missed it when I moved to Indiana for seminary. The society continued after I left but I don’t know if it lives on today.
So, in that spirit, I look forward to posting reviews of films here and creating a “virtual” discussion between us. Here is the first review:
“Of Gods and Men”
Directed by Xavier Beauvois, French with English subtitles
This film is based on a true story of French monks in the 1990s, who choose to remain in their monastery located near a rural Algerian village during the rise of Islamist fundamentalists. In the movie, we see the monks lead lives of contemplation and action, following the Rule of Benedict. Their days center on prayer in their small chapel seven times a day (Praying the Hours) while the rest of their day focuses on work—cooking meals, tending the garden, harvesting honey to sell in the local marketplace.
Brother Luc, one of the oldest monks, is a physician provides medical care to the village, sometimes seeing 150 people a day. He provides additional necessities, such as shoes to those in need. We also see him counseling a young woman about love. The scene is very tender, with Brother Luc leaning attentively toward the woman, asking her thoughtful questions and responding to her with respect and kindness. When she asks him if he had ever been in love, he says: “Oh yes, many times. But then I found a greater Love.” We see love on his face and in his interactions with the villagers and we see he did find a greater Love.
The abbot, Brother Christian, studies the Koran in addition to the Bible and is able to quote a portion of the Koran to the leader of the Mujahadeen who are stirring up so much fear. He says good-bye to a village friend, “Insha-allah,” meaning “God be with you.” The monks respect the villager’s Muslim faith and in turn, the villagers respect the monk’s Christian faith.
But the Mujahadeen have already killed one young woman for not wearing a veil and a group of Croatian laborers. After the Mujahadeen visit the monastery looking for medical aid, the monks realize they too are in danger and begin their discernment: should we stay or should we go?
Brother Christian believes the monks were called to be at their monastery, praying and living together in community while serving the villagers and therefore should stay. During a monastic community meeting—around a table with a lit candle in the center—the monks share their thoughts. Some want to leave: “I didn’t join the order to get my throat slit” says one; another monk wonders, “Will death serve a higher purpose?” They listen to one another without trying to force their opinion onto the other and agree to continue praying about it.
We see the monks struggle as they continue the routines of the monastic life. One monk particularly wrestles with God, crying out in his cell: “Help me! Don’t leave me. Help me.” The other monks overhear him, pray for him, and perhaps echo his words in their own prayers.
Several days later, the monks gather again around the community table with the lit candle and share their hearts. Ultimately, they decided to remain at the monastery knowing they will likely be killed. But as Brother Luc says, “I am not scared of death. I am a free man.”
They celebrate their unity with wine and listen to the overture from Swan Lake. Then we see the most compelling scene: the camera focuses on each monk, at first smiling at one another with joy then their faces growing grave as they realize—“we are choosing death.” This is a bittersweet and powerful moment.
And indeed, later that night, the Mujahadeen arrive and kidnap all but two of the monks (who hid). The kidnapped monks were killed on May 21, 1996—the crime remains unsolved.
The film won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes and was nominated for Best Foreign Film.
Post-script: I heard the lead actor, Lambert Wilson, on NPR’s Fresh Air interviewed by Terry Gross. Wilson is known in France for suave, heartbreaker roles and stage performer in musicals. Gross asked him how he prepared for this role so different from his previous roles. Lambert said the director took all the actors to a monastery for a few weeks where they “prayed the hours” with the monks and sang chant.
Gross asked, “Did you enjoy the monastery?” and Lambert said he had returned a number of times since the end of filming because he valued the silence and singing the Psalms.
“The chants live with me,” Lambert said. “I find myself singing them during the day.”