Of Gods and Men
(M) Lambert Wilson, Olivier Rabourdi
Though it won the Grand Prix at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, it has taken a while for this thought-provoking meditation on Christian martyrdom to reach our shores.
Of Gods and Men retells the story of the 1996 Tibhirine massacre, when seven French Cistercian monks were kidnapped and killed. Fifteen years later the precise details of their deaths are still unknown.
In dramatising the events that transpired, director Xavier Beauvois doesn’t seem interested in solving this mystery but he is deeply interested in why they didn’t try to save their lives.
Of course for Christian viewers the answer is their devotion to God, which is abundantly evident in their daily prayer, worship and care for the Muslim villagers close the monastery — this close knit group of men are living in and practising Christian community.
Music is part of the monks’ DNA. The Cistercian monks are known for singing the Psalms and part of the routine has the monks chanting four hours a day.
The film follows the monks in their many other daily routines but in contrast to the depiction of monastic life in the documentary Into Great Silence — a meditation on worship and silence with very little dialogue — Of God’s and Men has some very vigorous discussions about the very nature of giving one’s life for God.
When a group of foreign workers in a nearby village is murdered by terrorists the brothers begin to debate their call. Some of the monks refuse protection, preferring solidarity, while others don’t seem as convinced.
“We are called to live here in this country, with this people who are also afraid,” professes Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson) but Brother Christophe (Olivier Rabourdin) counters, “I didn’t come here to commit collective suicide.”
“I became a monk to live, not have my throat slit,” says another.
When a group of gunmen threatens the monastery on Christmas Eve demanding medical supplies, all wrestle with the idea that following Christ may mean they are risking their lives.
It is hard not to be caught in the dilemma of what one would do in similar circumstances and the film deals with the crisis of faith of Brother Christophe in a way that is relatable and crushingly devastating.
When he cries out in night, begging God to not abandon him, it can’t help but recall the gospel.
“As a kid I dreamed of becoming a missionary,” he later confesses to Christian. “Dying for my faith shouldn’t keep me up at nights. Dying here … does it serve a purpose? I don’t know. I feel like I’m going mad.”
“We are martyrs out of love, out of fidelity. Love endures everything,” Christian says, embracing Christophe. “It is through poverty and death that we advance towards him.”
The most moving scene in the film has the monks enjoying a final meal together after all have decided to stay in the monastery. With Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake playing, they eat, laugh and cry together, then one dreary day, thick with snow, they are taken away never to be seen again.
The pitch-perfect performances in this film, along with the amazing cinematography of the Algerian countryside, help to frame some complex ideas about what it truly and humbly means to be a Christian.
This film is a profoundly moving and transcendent meditation on faith and sacrifice that won’t be an easy experience to shake.