What does it mean to truly follow Christ? What happens when such discipleship puts you on a path toward persecution or even death?
These are questions now being answered among believers in North Africa, Central Asia and the Middle East — a Christian government minister in Pakistan is slain over his opposition to Islamic blasphemy laws, for example. An Orthodox Christian Church in Egypt is bombed by radicals on New Year’s Eve. Thousands of Christians flee Baghdad after a Syrian Catholic Church is bombed in the Iraqi capital in November.
Against this backdrop of all-too-real violence against Christian minorities in Muslim-dominated countries comes a new film, now in limited U.S. release, retelling the discipleship and sacrifice of a community of French Trappist monks living among their Muslim neighbors in the mountains of Algeria.
“Of Gods and Men” (Sony Pictures Classics) is not just about Christian persecution at the hand of Islamic extremists, but about the love and service a group of dedicated Christians feel toward their fellow human beings, no matter their religion and no matter the cost.
The film, based on the story of seven French monks serving as missionaries in Tibhirine, Algeria, who were kidnapped and killed in 1996, was the Grand Prix winner at the Cannes Film Festival last May — essentially the storied festival’s second most prestigious award — and was France’s entry for best foreign language film for the Academy Awards. In addition, it was named best foreign language film by the National Board of Review. Given its refreshingly honest and respectful portrayal of the monks’ religious convictions, it is encouraging to see the film earn such accolades.
“Of Gods and Men” depicts the lives of eight Trappists peacefully co-existing with their Muslim neighbors in North Africa.
Brother Luc (Michael Lonsdale), the community’s wise and gentle doctor, cares for sick villagers — mostly women and children — in a sparsely stocked medical clinic. Other monks work the fields or tend to the community’s bees, whose honey they sell in the village’s marketplace.
One of the many remarkable qualities of “Of Gods and Men” is how effectively it captures the rhythm — both the sacred and the mundane — of the monks’ daily lives. Director Xavier Beauvois follows the monks as they pray in the chapel, share a meal, work in the fields and visit with the village’s leaders.
It is difficult to imagine a Hollywood production allowing the camera to stay trained on a set of characters as they chant prayers for several minutes, or to follow a solitary monk as he checks on beehives without cutting away to show more exciting action. Yet, these are some of the most powerful scenes of the film, relying not on dialogue but the sounds of nature or of chant.
This idyllic existence soon is under threat as Islamic fundamentalists and the country’s government clash in the country’s civil war, and a group of Croatian workers is slain in one of the film’s few disturbing scene. The threat hits home when one of the extremists pays a visit to the monastery on Christmas Eve.
The community’s superior, Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson), however, will not back down from the monastery’s commitment to the villagers or to Christ.
‘Brothers to all’
Some of his fellow monks are not so sure. After all, the Islamic extremists don’t want the monks in the country, the Algerian government wants them out of the country — “Please go back to France,” a government official pleads with Brother Christian, “your sacrifice will be exploited.” Why, some of the monks want to know, should they remain? After all, they joined a religious community to serve God and their fellow man, not to be slaughtered.
The viewers can surely understand and identify with the monks’ fears. The desire to flee danger is very strong, and who could fault the monks for feeling such a way? Who wouldn’t have the urge to save himself or herself?
“The Good Shepherd does not abandon his flock to the wolves,” one of the monks replies to his brothers during a meeting in which some of them voice their desire to leave. Yet Brother Christian agrees with one of his fellow monks that the issue is one that they need to think — and more importantly, to pray — about before making a decision.
One of the great strengths of the film is its wrenching portrait of the monks in turmoil as they pray and determine, as a community, whether to stay or flee. They are not cookie-cutter characters who blindly follow their superior, but flesh-and-blood men who wrestle with what it means to live in community and what it means to follow Christ, no matter where such discipleship leads you.
In particular, the youngest monk, Brother Christophe, experiences a crisis of faith, telling Brother Christian that when he prays, he hears nothing.
In a poignant scene, Brother Christian consoles the stricken Christophe, reminding him that staying in the village is nearly as mad as becoming a monk in the first place, and that he already gave up his life when he joined the community.
“We’re martyrs out of love, out of fidelity,” says Brother Christian. “Our mission is to be brothers to all.”
That brotherhood extends even to the extremists who pose such a threat to the monks, when one of the injured radicals is brought to Brother Luc for treatment. This makes the monks unpopular with government officials, but the monks are not there to appease the government or the fundamentalists, but to serve their fellow man.
Ultimately, all of the monks realize that, unlike the birds that disrupt Brother Christian as he walks through the monastery property to pray among the huge trees, rolling hills and a calm, peaceful lake, they may not take flight. Rather, as a villager explains to one of them, they are the branches upon which the village finds respite.
“If you go,” the villager tells the monk, “we lose our footing.”
Eventually, the eight come together again in a meeting of whether or not they should stay. All of them vote to stay.
Even as several of the monks are taken hostage, there is a sense of peace among them. We are spared seeing the final result of their commitment to Christ, but their calm, dignified march toward their fate remains a lasting, haunting image.
Sarah Hayes is OSV’s presentation editor.
Of Gods and Men
Running time: 120 minutes
Rating: Rated PG-13 (violence and sparse profanity), USCCB rating of A-III (adults only)
Release dates: The film, which is in French with English subtitles, opened Feb. 25 in New York and Los Angeles, and is slowly being released throughout the country. Visit www.sonyclassics.com/ofgodsandmen/dates.html to see when it will come to a theater near your community.
Related reading: Author John W. Kiser has written about the real-life monks in the book “The Monks of Tibhirine: Faith, Love and Terror in Algeria” (St. Martin’s Press, $19.99). Visit www.themonksoftibhirine.net/ for more information.